Q&A with PIIRS Director Miguel Centeno

Aug 19, 2003
Woodrow Wilson School











The Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) is a new research center that will bring together faculty and undergraduate and graduate students across the University to engage in research, curricular and extracurricular projects that will enrich established international curricula. The Institute was co-created by the University and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. PIIRS’ director is Miguel Centeno, Professor of Sociology, who is on the faculty of the University’s Program in Latin American Studies.

Noted Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of the WWS, in a recent University press release, "PIIRS will sponsor innovative teaching and research initiatives that will integrate regional and cultural studies with geopolitics, foreign policy and international diplomacy. By creating a single powerful entity that will combine many different approaches to international studies, Princeton is strengthening its leadership position as a teaching and research institution responding to complex and ever-changing global issues. The Woodrow Wilson School also gains an important partner in translating academic research into public policy solutions to global problems."

Professor Centeno outlined his vision for PIIRS and highlighted the Institute’s mission, activities, and key objectives during a recent Q&A session.

WWS: Why was PIIRS formed?

Miguel Centeno (MC): Princeton was already doing great work with curriculum, with research, and across a variety of disciplines. What we weren’t doing is linking these efforts in systematic way. PIIRS is about connecting the dots between faculty research and student seminars, between those studying Turkish and those looking at Mediterranean foreign policy, between a visitor writing a book on border disputes and a senior writing a thesis on the Berlin Congress of 1878.

WWS: What is the relationship between the WWS and PIIRS?

MC: A very close one. First, institutionally, PIIRS is the product of a partnership between the WWS and the rest of the University. More importantly and substantively, one of the critical missions of PIIRS is to combine what we might call empirical expertise with theoretical acumen, or better yet, a scholarly perspective with one more oriented towards policy outcomes. My view is that policy folks and academic types have a lot to teach and learn from each other and PIIRS will be a place where that should happen.

WWS: What departments will participate? What faculty, students will be involved?

MC: We see ourselves open to any and all departments and members of the community with an interest in international and regional topics. Obviously, the classic social sciences and history will play a critical role, but we also want to include other humanities and sciences. For example, an expert on ethics may be able to help an ecologist better coordinate research with a host region, or a geologist might make a great partner for a political scientist studying nationalization of oil. I certainly want to make appreciation of geographical and historical context easier for an abstract theorist while also giving the regional expert exposure to a broader set of trends.

WWS: How will PIIRS contribute to the curriculum at Princeton and the WWS? To policymaking?

MC: We are already co-sponsoring a set of courses for next spring including one on Afghanistan and another on Korea. These offerings will expand dramatically in the coming years. Obviously we will serve as resource for departments, faculty, and students who simply need support to make a course happen. But we also want to generate new ways of teaching relevant topics. One possibility that we are currently exploring with the Dean of the College’s office is to introduce one or two regions to students through a focus on a particular policy debate. So for example, rather than a standard introductory course into a region, you would take a course that compared how 2 or 3 regions dealt with immigration or environmental damage. As to policymaking, I cannot imagine a better contribution on behalf of the University than making sure that those making decisions are as well prepared as we can make them. I am old fashioned enough to believe in the Enlightenment notion that knowledge is better than ignorance.

WWS: How might faculty collaborate as part of PIIRS?

MC: A major innovation of PIIRS will be allowing faculty - and students - a critical voice in how the majority of the money is spent. We will serve as a “venture capitalist,” providing administrative support and financial resources to those with new ideas and projects. In this way, there are no limits on how faculty will participate - it will be very much their institute.

WWS: What activities, projects, or events will PIIRS sponsor?

MC: Some of this will really be up to the kinds of ideas that the faculty wish to pursue. But right now, our shopping list includes at least a dozen courses, 8-10 visitors a year, several conferences and research projects, and a series of faculty seminars that will explore the latest scholarly trends in particular areas or topics.

WWS: Tell us about yourself: what are your research interests and current projects?

MC: Probably the biggest difference between many of my colleagues and me is that I spent considerable time outside of academia in business and earned an MBA. This gives me a slightly different take on many administrative issues that I hope will help with PIIRS. As to scholarship, I spent the first decade of my career working on Latin America with books on Mexican and Cuban politics, technocrats, and state development in the region as a whole. Over the next 5 years, I hope to finish two book projects. The first is a Historical Atlas of Globalization where I serve as the editor for contributions from dozens of colleagues. The other is a book on the victory of classic liberalism during the past two decades and the consequences (and challenges) thereof.

In conclusion, I very much hope that WWS students will consider PIIRS a resource for exploring the concrete implications and complications of the international questions they study.