Campus News Faculty Spotlight

Associate professor’s work blends science and history

K. Chad Clay is the director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues and associate professor of international affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

K. Chad Clay measures human rights with quantitative data

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

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

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

As a first-generation college student, Clay’s journey to academia took an unexpected path, but he ended up exactly where he wants to be. “I never took an international affairs course in undergrad,” he said with a laugh.

It wasn’t until after graduation that he decided to give political science a try and immediately loved it. While earning his M.A. at the University of Memphis, his interests piqued at the intersection of science and history, leading him to an expertise in 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 his role as the director of GLOBIS, Clay has brought the program back 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 research on human rights and teaching human rights,” he said. “I’ve 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 started the GLOBIS Human Rights Research Lab. Each year, the lab brings undergraduate and graduate students in to assist with ongoing research projects while also teaching the students how to conduct human rights research themselves, as well as to conduct various outreach programs. The largest of these programs is the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI), a world-known collaborative organization that provides accessible data to track the human rights performance in countries around the world.

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

As a co-founder of HRMI, Clay and his research team across the globe aim to create a comprehensive database that produces metrics for the full range of rights acknowledged 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 advocates, human rights practitioners, state officials, people who worked for large intergovernmental organizations like the U.N. or the World Bank, and human rights academics all in rooms together where we discuss the best way to produce data and metrics that meet the standards that social scientists would like to see, but also are useful to and understandable by both the human rights community and the general public,” he said.

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

This unique initiative has opened doors for UGA students not only to gain research and outreach experiences in the realms of international affairs and law, but also to participate in internships across 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 at SPIA,” said Clay.

With the addition of the human rights minor to the SPIA degree docket in 2021, students can work alongside professors like Clay for distinct 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 Glascow, Scotland, GLOBIS offers students opportunities to engage in learning experiences around the world.

With such an impressive resume, Clay’s advice to students is at once surprising, but tracks alongside his experience into academia:

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