Giving peace a chance

Brenau’s mediation leaders awarded honorary doctorates from Tbilisi, Georgia, university

By Dashiell Coleman

In March 2020, Brenau University’s Ken and Mary Lou Frank were in Chicago doing what they do best: helping guide the world’s future peacemakers. 

Ken Frank, director of Brenau’s Conflict Resolution & Legal Studies program, and wife Mary Lou Frank, adjunct instructor in the university’s Lynn J. Darby School of Psychology and Adolescent Counseling, are both leaders within the International Academy for Dispute Resolution. They were at Loyola University to help run the organization’s annual International Law School Mediation Tournament and were ready to make a big announcement: The 2021 tournament would be held in the Eastern European city of Tbilisi, Georgia. 

But other news got in the way. COVID-19 was intensifying in the U.S., and that same weekend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people older than 60 to avoid travel. 

Little did the Franks — or anyone else in the country — realize then just how severe the pandemic would get. 

“We made that announcement,” Ken Frank says. “And we were all going to be in Tbilisi the following March — until COVID took us out of the equation.” 

But the show must go on. And who better than professional problem-solvers to figure out how to host an international tournament in a pandemic? With a little hard work and a lot of internet bandwidth, the Franks were able to help the private University of Georgia in Tbilisi host the tournament in April, albeit in a much more socially distanced format than originally intended.  

Their efforts did not go unnoticed. In late May, the Franks opened a letter from the University of Georgia and learned they’d been awarded honorary doctorates. 

“We are greatly inspired by your work to achieve higher recognition of the power of dispute resolution processes to peacefully resolve conflicts and promote conciliation and healing,” wrote the university’s rector, Konstantine Topuria, in the letter. “Throughout the years, you have created numerous opportunities for our students and staff to seek further professional development and for the University of Georgia to pave its way through the international mediation community.”

The honor was unexpected. 

“It was a real surprise that that happened,” Ken Frank says. “We are just very, very humbled by the recognition.” 

Holding a virtual mediation tournament

Normally, these tournaments involve law students from across the world getting together, socializing and competitively mediating prepared cases. They’re at Loyola on even years and at different international locations on odd years. 

The Tbilisi tournament was slated to be the Georgian university’s first such event. On top of that, it was the 20th anniversary of the tournament. 

Mary Lou Frank says she and Ken Frank spent more than six months helping organize the 2021 tournament through virtual meetings. 

“Doing a virtual tournament is complex,” Mary Lou Frank says. “You’re dealing with, how do you do the publicity for it? How do you set up judges? You’ve got to have virtually trained hosts for every room for every round — and there are five rounds — and trained judges, as well as making sure you’ve got all the students.”

That meant, among other things, setting up a robust social media presence for the tournament and buying about 20 Zoom accounts. In the end, people from over 50 countries participated.

“It was quite challenging because it was the anniversary so we wanted to make it special, but at the same time it was not possible to hold it in Tbilisi,” says Ana Khurtsidze, dean of the university’s law school. “With the joined effort of INADR and its amazing staff, including Ken and Mary Lou Frank, and the University of Georgia, all the challenges were successfully overcome.”  

Khurtsidze, who served as the host university’s organizer, calls the tournament “a privilege for our country” and says the Franks’ support was integral to pulling it off. 

“These two people gave opportunity not only to me and the university but the whole of Georgia because Georgian teams participated,” Khurtsidze says. 

Educational and networking opportunities aren’t the only big draws for international tournaments. Traveling to another country also gives people a chance to explore a different culture. But with everyone logging in to Tbilisi from home, organizers had to get creative. 

Participants experienced Georgia through live-streamed master classes for wine-tasting, traditional dance and regional cuisine. In one case, a video course on how to make khachapuri, a popular Georgian cheese bread, was sent to attendees so that they could make the food at home during the tournament.  

“It was just a way to share culture,” Mary Lou Frank says. “And that’s a part of what we do with these tournaments. We want people to learn how to work in a multicultural environment and respect the differences.” 

Bringing the peace back home

The tournament was a success, but it was a lot of work. 

“We had people competing at 2 o’clock in the morning and 10 o’clock at night just because of the different time zones,” Ken Frank says. “But it was amazing to watch all these students come together and do this conflict resolution work together.” 

Teaching mediation is more than just a hobby for the Franks. 

“(They) really feel what mediation is,” Khurtsidze says. “They are doing everything for others to feel the same. This is something that comes naturally for them… They empower people.” 

Mary Lou Frank is a past president of INADR, and she’s written a book on the psychology of mediation. Ken Frank has been involved with the organization since its inception and serves as its vice president of education for the U.S. 

“What keeps us involved in it is the opportunity to work with these young people and help them develop conflict resolution skills,” Ken Frank says. 

Sometimes those students develop lifelong friendships, too. The Franks are quick to recount how a student from Ukraine and a student from Singapore met at a mediation tournament in London and went on to get married. There was even a table for folks from the international mediation community at the wedding.  

Those kinds of personal bonds are important, Mary Lou Frank says, because students involved in the competitions may go on to take leadership roles on the international stage. Maybe those personal connections forged at a mediation tournament can lead to networking, favors, or even just a conversation starter that leads to a conflict being sorted out. 

“We want to see a more peaceful world where people are willing to call each other and talk with each other and not escalate conflict, which is really easy to do, and it happens here just as much as it happens anywhere,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to.” 

And, of course, Brenau students benefit from the Franks’ experiences, says Andrea Birch, dean of the College of Fine Arts & Humanities.

“Ken Frank believes that mediation can transform all relationships,” Birch says. “Recently, the Brenau Trustee Library displayed his new book, Conflict with Resolution: Understanding Processes for Resolving Conflict, and his LE 300 Conflict Resolution is a popular course in Brenau’s liberal education curriculum. As I often say, Dr. Frank has a regional, national and international reputation.”

Many of the lessons the Franks learn internationally are brought back to the classroom at Brenau. “It just makes that so much more rich for the students, and I think it really does inform them,” Ken Frank says.

The Franks have also taken Brenau students to international mediation competitions before and, each year, Brenau hosts its own tournament with INADR. 

That’s not all the Franks have on their plate, either. There’s the virtual International Intercollegiate Mediation Tournament in November, plus they’re hoping to organize a tournament in Poland in December and head back to Loyola again next March. And they still have to teach classes. 

But before all that — and in fact just as soon as they got done with an interview — the Franks had to get back to actual mediating. Their help was needed at an organization experiencing conflict. 

“There’s always something,” they say in unison. 

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