Lawrenceville Community Conversations Continue with International Affairs Expert Hugh Dugan

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Lawrenceville Community Conversations Continue with International Affairs Expert Hugh Dugan

As part of Lawrenceville’s continued efforts to engage speakers on a range of topics and perspectives related to Middle Eastern history and politics, the School welcomed international affairs practitioner and scholar Hugh Dugan P’20 ’21 to campus on April 4. This was the second event in Lawrenceville’s Community Conversations speaker series, which began on January 8 with award-winning journalists Jane Ferguson ’04 and David Ottaway ’57.

In 2019, Dugan served as Acting Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, which involved lines of effort for recovery from the Middle East. A U.S. delegate and senior advisor to the United Nations from 1989-2015 and member of the National Security Council, Dugan spoke to Lawrentians about hostage-taking as what he called “an act of war,” both in the Middle East and in other regions of the world.

Hugh Dugan, Community Conversation Lecture

Dugan said there is no “cookie cutter approach” to resolution of any hostage situation. While the policy of the United States is not to negotiate with terrorist organizations,  the nation does have protocols in place to work to recover “wrongful detainees,” that is, American citizens held by recognized foreign governments. Terrorist organizations, like Hamas, he said, are not bound by the “customs, protocols, conventions, or arrangements” that are generally agreed upon between nation-states. “We can punish states through accountability measures, but how does one deal with a terrorist organization? They are outside of the law. We are dealing with outlaws,” he said.

Modern hostage-taking, Dugan said, is not restricted to physically holding someone captive. To succeed against the next generation of warfare, we must consider the possibility of terrorists shutting down computer clouds or releasing biological weapons. ‘We will find ourselves held hostage not just as a country, but as a world,” he said.

There is very little scholarship on how to deal with terrorists and we must, Dugan said, “be more scientific about our approach to these situations.” He invited and challenged Lawrentians to consider this “original, critically important” field of inquiry as an area of study. “We must be attentive to our patriots who are denied their life and freedom. [Hostage-taking] cannot become normalized.”

Dugan’s talk was open to the campus community, and especially timely for students in the School’s history electives, the Senior Capstone and Forces that Shaped the Modern World courses. Capstone brings thought leaders to campus to discuss a host of historic and current events, and this year is focused on the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Forces that Shaped the Modern World examines economic developments, ideas, and cultural patterns that have shaped the modern world since 1400.

Capstone Director Michael Friedman, who teaches in both Lawrenceville’s History Department and Religion and Philosophy Departments, said opportunities to hear first-hand from experts like Dugan are “a gift.” With Lawrenceville’s discussion-based Harkness learning, he noted, “having something really rich to talk about in class makes all the difference. We could give students an article written by an expert on the Middle East, but having someone who works in the field and can talk to you about what they have seen and learned elevates the discussion.”

Michael Friedman/Capstone Class

Capstone teacher Clare Grieve echoed Friedman’s sentiments, noting the rare opportunity to hear from – and speak to – unfiltered experts. "Disinformation and misinformation are normative now … we need to think more critically about how to operate in a new environment,” she said. “The opportunity to learn from experts, to analyze facts and express opinions, ultimately enriches student discourse and promotes this idea of a democratic public square.”

Arya Sreedhar, a Fifth Form student taking the Capstone course, said discussion about Dugan’s lecture continued into the night among her McClellan Housemates and the adult duty team. “I’m glad that the School is doing this because it really helps us, as a community, better understand the conflict, its deep roots and long history, and the many nuances within it. You can’t be in an echo chamber if you want to make change,” she said. “It’s really important that you speak with people who disagree with you and come to that conversation from a place of empathy and understanding.”

History educator Vielka Hoy, who teaches Third Formers in Forces that Shaped the Modern World, appreciates the weight speakers have placed on understanding the roots of the current Middle East Conflict. This level of understanding, she believes, allows students to better comprehend and empathize when unpacking historical events in general and the Middle East’s extraordinary complexities specifically.

“History isn’t just about the short time you’ve been on the planet – it’s a long trajectory. The questions we have today have very long historical beginnings,” Hoy noted.

Michael Meng ‘26, a student in Hoy’s class, said the talks have increased his understanding of international relations, in particular why the U.S. interacts differently with other nations versus terrorist groups. “I think the school community benefits from hearing speakers addressing the Middle East because it provides an opportunity for students and adults to get a different perspective and understand the nuances of the situation,” he said.

Aiden Li ’26 looks forward to future Community Conversation speakers, stating, “I believe that many students, like me, did not and probably would not have done any research on the Middle East conflict if there weren't any guest speakers coming to the school and educating us on the situation. While I wasn't interested initially in the conflict, I gained more interest [after the talks] and now I think it is essential for students to continually gain a better perspective on the Middle East conflict. It shouldn't be something we avoid talking about – although I feel like many of us do.”

Throughout the remainder of the academic year, Lawrenceville will present additional programming with leading experts to educate students about national and global issues. The goal is to help create a campus environment of compassion, understanding, and informed discussion, as well as a sense of social responsibility in Lawrentians.

For additional information, contact Lisa M. Gillard H'17, director of public relations, at