Years of studying the supply chains of major corporations, like Nike and Coca-Cola, have taught Richard M. Locke that foreign factories achieve the best balance between productivity and a good working environment when local management and labor have a collaborative relationship with each other and with the corporation.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Mr. Locke wanted the input of his future colleagues as he prepared last spring to take over as director of the Watson Institute for International Studies, at Brown University.
Mr. Locke, then working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commuted from Boston to Providence, R.I., for weekly meetings to discuss a new mission for the institute and how to improve its reputation. It was important, he says, that everyone "see their place in the organization."
The greater surprise was that Mr. Locke, who is 54, had accepted the position in the first place.
He had spent nearly 30 years at MIT, dating back to his days as a graduate student in the political-science department. By the time he was contacted about the Watson position, in 2012, he was serving as head of the political-science department and deputy dean of the Sloan School of Management. "It was never really part of my plan to leave," he says.
What he first learned about Watson wasn't all that promising. It didn't have a great reputation; its website, he says, was a mess; and the institute was operating under its sixth director since 2006. Three of those directors, including the most recent two, were interim. "It seemed like a pretty iffy thing," he says.
But as he met with faculty members and Brown's top leadership, he began to see Watson as having great, untapped potential. "It's an incredible risk to step away from something very safe," he says, "but I thought that the challenge was really interesting."
It wasn't the first time Mr. Locke had departed from a safer course. He entered Wesleyan University in the late 1970s expecting to prepare for medical school. As he took more undergraduate courses in Wesleyan's humanities-rich College of Letters program, however, he found his interests veering away from medicine. "Whenever I had free time, I was not studying biology but was reading more politics," he says.
As a doctoral student at MIT, Mr. Locke sought to understand what he saw as the puzzle of the late-1980s Italian economy. Despite an unstable government and the presence of the Mafia, Italy's economy was outperforming that of many of its neighbors. How did a country as screwed up as Italy, he wondered, appear to be doing so well?
In his dissertation, completed in 1989, he observed that the broader Italian economy was actually composed of vastly different regional subeconomies. Manufacturing sites within the same company differed significantly based on the relationships among management, labor, and the local economy. That work led to similar studies of the economic systems in other countries, including the United States, and to his work analyzing the global supply chains of major corporations—and how they can be made more just.
He argues, for example, that investments in improving the management skills of foreign factory operators improve productivity and sometimes result in better working conditions and higher wages for workers, while reducing the need for costly private audits of underperforming facilities.
He has brought that focus to Watson, which defines its new mission as promoting a "just and peaceful world through research, teaching, and public engagement."
Mr. Locke hopes to transform Watson from a research institute to a school of international and public affairs that can produce leaders who espouse its mission.
He shares that goal with Brown's president, Christina H. Paxson, who was dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs before starting at Brown last year. Hiring a permanent director for Watson was a top priority, and she says Mr. Locke had the right combination of leadership skills and intellectual breadth.
Mr. Locke has created a new postdoctoral program and has begun searching for some of the eight new faculty members he expects to add to the institute over the next two years. The institute already has 14 core faculty members (five of whom are also faculty fellows), an additional 14 faculty fellows, and several senior or visiting fellows.
Ms. Paxson describes as "quite astounding" Mr. Locke's early work to overhaul the institute's mission and better integrate it with the rest of the campus. "The place is just bursting with energy," she says.