The work of the associate professor combines science and history

K. Chad Clay measures human rights with quantitative data

“When I tell stories about our students to colleagues at conferences, I get jealous looks,” said K. Chad Clay, associate professor of international relations in the School of Public and International Affairs and director of the Global Issues Research Center (GLOBIS). “And they should be envious. Our students are great and I hit the lottery when I came to SPIA.”

The University of Georgia was Clay’s first stop after completing his Ph.D. at Binghamton University in 2012, and he’s been hooked ever since.

“I feel extraordinarily lucky to work at SPIA. I have great colleagues and the students are on another level,” he said.

As a first-generation college student, Clay’s journey into academia takes an unexpected path, but he ends up exactly where he wants to be. “I never took an international relations course as an undergraduate,” he said with a laugh.

It was only after graduation that he decided to try political science and immediately liked it. While earning a master’s degree at the University of Memphis, his interests shifted to the intersection of science and history, leading him to experience measuring human rights using quantitative data.

Clay’s research focuses on the determinants of human rights practices, collective dissent, political violence, and economic development. In her role as director of GLOBIS, Clay returned the program to its roots, as it was founded by Han Park, who was one of the first to conduct quantitative research in the field of human rights.

“My focus has always been on doing human rights research and teaching human rights,” he said. “I really tried to turn the research side of GLOBIS into a center focused on research, teaching and outreach on human rights topics and human rights issues.”

To that end, Clay launched the GLOBIS Human Rights Research Laboratory. Each year, the lab attracts graduate and undergraduate students to assist with ongoing research projects, while training students to conduct human rights research of their own, as well as conducting various outreach programs. The largest of these programs is the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI), a world-renowned collaborative that provides accessible data to track the human rights performance of countries around the world.

“I’ve been measuring human rights in one way, shape or form for 15-16 years now. And I have been part of many different projects. But I’ve never been a part of anything like this,” he said, “where our goal is not just to produce data that makes it easier for someone like me to do research. It really is to produce data that anyone can use to understand these concepts.

As co-founder of HRMI, Clay and his research team around the world aim to create a comprehensive database that produces indicators of the full range of rights recognized in international law, particularly the International Bill of Human Rights. Using a method they call “co-design,” Clay and his colleagues bring everyone to the table.

“We tend to put human rights defenders, human rights practitioners, civil servants, people who have worked for large intergovernmental organizations like the UN or the World Bank, and human rights academics all in rooms where we discuss the most the good way to create data and indicators that meet the standards that social scientists would like to see, but are also useful and understandable to both the human rights community and the general public,” he said.

As a result of their work, they created the Rights Tracker, a website where the public and practitioners can see data visualizations and explanations that are easily digestible and accessible to understand how countries are performing on various aspects of human rights.

This unique initiative has opened doors for UGA students not only to gain research and experience in international relations and law, but also to participate in internships around the world. These students focus on presenting their data and interacting with journalists and international organizations such as the United Nations.

“For students interested in studying human rights, there is no better place than SPIA,” Clay said.

With the addition of a human rights minor to the SPIA degree listings in 2021, students can work alongside professors like Clay for a variety of research, learning and outreach opportunities.

In addition to the research side of GLOBIS, Clay continues to lead the way for SPIA’s study abroad opportunities. With programs that range from Stellenbosch, South Africa, to Glasgow, Scotland, GLOBIS offers students opportunities to engage in learning experiences around the world.

With such an impressive resume, Clay’s advice to students is both surprising and yet dovetails with his experience in academia:

“I try to get students to worry less about how you’re going to spend the rest of your life. College is an important experience and you will never have this opportunity to learn so much. Don’t worry about what comes next – enjoy it. Take a moment and time to truly appreciate college for what it is and what it can do to expand your horizons professionally and personally. Let the future take care of itself. The lessons you learn here will contribute to where you land.”

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