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GETTING A GRIP ON AMERICA’S PENSION PROBLEM The United States has a pension problem — and Dr. Kevin Rich knows it. With municipalities nationwide facing an estimated $4 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities, the assistant professor of accounting in the College of Business Administration was compelled to investigate. Rich and his collaborator, Dr. Jean Zhang of Virginia Commonwealth University, set out to identify governance factors associated with better-funded pension plans. “Given that pension benefits for municipal employees are often fairly protected, some even by state constitutions, the status quo is unsustainable,” Rich says. “To meet promised obligations, many localities are going to have to raise taxes or cut services in the future.” In the project, Rich zeroed in on one particular governance factor: local citizen oversight. His hunch that healthier pension plans are found in cities that employ greater citizen oversight was correct. Using a sample of 84 locally administered municipal benefit pension plans, Rich found that unfunded pension liabilities are negatively associated with provisions that allow direct citizen participation in the legislative process, as well as electoral voter activism in the form of recent recall attempts. Put simply, citizen oversight mechanisms do play an important role in the pension funding decisions of municipal governments. “Our findings have direct policy implications that can be enacted by citizen voters,” Rich says. “More generally, they reinforce the importance of an active citizenry in the fiscal oversight of government.” CHRISTOPHER STOLARSKI

How social media challenges state authority For Dr. Nur Uysal, assistant professor of strategic communication in the Diederich College, the parallel evolution of communication technology and public diplomacy is a fairly new, but crucial, concept in communication research, as explored in her notable study, “Going for the Jugular in Public Diplomacy: How adversarial publics using social media are challenging state legitimacy.” Co-written with Dr. Rhonda Zaharna of American University, the study departs from much public diplomacy scholarship, largely pursued from a state-centric perspective. This study shows how the traditional view of a state’s people as passive “audiences” has evolved in practice to a view of them as “public partners” or often now as “adversarial stakeholders.” In other words, because of this shift from members of the public as consumers of media content to producers, states are “losing control of defining the relational dynamic with publics using social media. They no longer have the exclusive upper hand in defining these relationships,” Uysal observes. “Going for the Jugular” received the 2014 top faculty paper award from the Public Relations Division of the National Communication Association. She received the same top paper award from the NCA in late 2015, and her doctoral dissertation received a top award from the International Communication Association in 2013. With technology and public diplomacy both evolving rapidly — and interesting momentum occurring in other areas of Uysal’s research interests such as shareholder activism — she should have no shortage of rich material for future inquiries. KATHARINE MILLER

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Discover Magazine 2016  
Discover Magazine 2016