By Lisa Y. Garibay
In a space that used to house the University’s computer science department, a very different kind of research is taking place. It is focused on the “wiring” inside human brains, exploring behavior with regard to law and security, and ultimately seeking the reasons why humans break laws.
“There’s a wonderful space in that context for scholars to interact and to engage in interdisciplinary science, but there’s really been no mechanism to allow for that,” said Christian Meissner, Ph.D., founding director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior, which opened this summer with the mission to “empirically investigate human behavior in legal and security contexts.”
For Meissner — who recently departed UTEP for Iowa State University, but will remain involved with the center and ongoing research at UTEP — what’s at the heart of the center is the opportunity “to draw those scholars from within the college who are interested in common issues.”
Under the banner of the College of Liberal Arts, the center already has access to a broad array of research focusing on law-related issues — whether it’s sociologists or anthropologists studying issues of immigration, race and crime; political scientists studying intergroup violence; economists working on economic issues related to crime; or psychologists interested in various facets of legal psychology from decision making to law enforcement. Whatever the combination, the center’s vision includes sparking scientific innovation and highlighting the intellectual strengths of the University that is leading the nation in solving problems of social importance.
“It’s a broad and ambitious vision, and we’re just starting out, but securing and establishing the footprint of the center is one of the most important steps,” Meissner said.
The center’s space, for the most part, is designed to facilitate collaboration.
“We see ourselves as an interdisciplinary center that attracts scholars who want to work on projects that have a focus in law and human interaction,” Meissner said. “We want to have space that brings them together to collaborate.”
Harmon Hosch, Ph.D., oversees the center’s everyday operations as interim director, while Leonora M. Ortega acts as program manager. Regular offerings will include workshops by invited speakers; hosting of collaborative research networks featuring faculty from across disciplines; support for undergraduates and graduate students who want to engage in research; and dissemination of findings to the operational and legal community.
Meissner and Hosch are leading from their experience as program directors at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Both served as program directors for an interdisciplinary program titled “Law and Social Science.” This support for research on human interactions with law is the foundation for the center at UTEP.
“There are very few institutions in the U.S. that meet this challenge,” Meissner said. “Both of us have had the experience of appreciating multidisciplinary approaches, appreciating what the different disciplines offer in terms of methods and theory, and understanding the extent to which they fail to communicate to one another on common issues that they’re interested in. That drives both of us toward this vision of law and human behavior here at UTEP as a hub where scholars who are interested in immigration, for example, can get together and talk about what’s important to them in their approach, how they view immigration, and find common ground in an interdisciplinary space.”
Hosch and criminologist and sociologist Howard Daudistel, Ph.D., now the University’s senior executive vice president, paved the way for this focus on law and human behavior at UTEP years ago. The two have collaborated regularly over the past few decades under a previous incarnation of the CLHB funded by the NSF. The two examined juries, court decisions, and the impact of ethnicity on the outcome of cases, such as whether it mattered if a defendant testified on his own behalf in Spanish, and much more.
Though this kind of work at UTEP was an established collaboration between a few scholars, nothing formal had been created. Meissner’s arrival heralded an official version of the CLHB, and discussions about its creation began around 2010. Meissner’s acceptance of a position at the NSF coincided with his team receiving the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group Intelligence Interviewing and Interrogation Contract, which gave them the foundational support to formalize a future for the center.
Meissner emphasizes that the center envisions not only engaging researchers, but also coordinating and collaborating with the local community. The desire to have impact on those who deal with the law on a daily basis is echoed again and again in discussions about what the center is working on and how its founders hope it will be used. Working with federal, state, and local law enforcement, the intelligence community, the military, or the judicial system, the center’s aim is not only to be a producer of knowledge, but also a disseminator, offering practical, scientifically grounded advice.
To that end, Hosch has been meeting with the public defender’s office to prepare a grant proposal for the National Institute of Justice examining this question: When people are preparing to commit crimes, what do they think about?
“We can use (the public defender’s) resources to talk to those who are involved in the criminal justice system and learn more about the thought processes that people go through or don’t when they’re involved in these kinds of activities,” Hosch said.
During the center’s first years, its founders aim to host an annual symposium and a series of seminars featuring UTEP scholars and nationally recognized speakers. They will also disseminate research findings to scholars, practitioners, policymakers and community members to ensure that society benefits from scholarly interaction.
For now, the center is leveraging funding from its FBI contract and an NSF grant on immigration and crime as starting points, identifying faculty who have common interests and would want to operate within these spheres. They are developing several research coordination networks, bringing together groups of scholars who are interested in topics such as race and crime, or studying factors —political, psychological or otherwise — that motivate conflict among groups leading to acts of terrorism.
“Most of us who do this research are motivated by its products, who it helps and how it helps,” Meissner said. “Scholars are often attracted to UTEP to do research that helps the community, that has an impact on society, and to do so in a multicultural context. That’s every bit of what this center’s about. We want to have an impact on legal process and legal understanding by citizens, lawmakers, and law enforcement in our community.”