Sanford Steps Forward

September 30, 2014

Last spring, the Sanford School of Public Policy developed a new strategic vision intended to spark political engagement, broaden students’ experiences, and boost the school’s influence across the country and around the globe. As the school takes steps to bring this plan into focus, we invited faculty members to gather at Parker & Otis in downtown Durham to discuss the state of public policy, their most forward-thinking projects, and how to educate and inspire a new generation of leaders.

Joel Fleishman, Sanford professor of law and public policy, who helped found the program in 1971, began the conversation with Sanford’s origins.

Fleishman: When the first class arrived in 1972 the idea was, let’s agree on a core set of methods and theory that are useful to people trying to figure out how to make decisions in the public’s interest. You have to go back to the late eighteenth century to understand why this was so important. Adam Smith’s two seminal volumes, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, contain ethics, history, economics, politics, and philosophy all together. In the nineteenth century those disciplines broke apart, and in the twentieth century the focus shifted to individual disciplines. Politics went its own way. Economics went another way. But the public policy movement in the 1960s and ’70s brought them together again. Early on, we started with politics, statistics, economics, history, anthropology, and the humanities. The Center for Documentary Studies, a natural fit at the time, grew out of Sanford. We have a history of incubating programs and spinning them off.

Darity: That’s still the case. Mark Anthony Neal’s center will be part of our Social Equity Consortium, bringing in projects involving the arts, digital culture, and entrepreneurship, particularly emphasizing social media. He’ll develop opportunities for students to engage directly in the social-media process around policy issues.

Ananat: Also, there’s the new [J. Kirk Felsman Program on Children in Adversity], which pairs one of our M.P.P. graduates with a Center for Documentary Studies graduate, and they spend a year documenting—keeping a blog, etc.—the life of someone whose experience is important to the public interest. The first project documented teenage Syrian refugee girls, and it looked at the programs created to help these girls, and the political barriers to funding those programs. It’s a reminder that when we’re doing policy we’re talking about real people, and the individual’s lived experience is the one that matters, but too often when we try to take this 20,000-foot policy view, it’s hard to keep this human view, too. That’s a struggle we need to negotiate.

Fleishman: This is so important. It’s been part of the Sanford vision from the beginning. The Hart leadership Program has been doing this for years, sending Duke graduates to work with various cause organizations all over the world, and to document their work. That’s part of the Sanford DNA.

Ananat: One of our new colleagues, Jay Pearson, talks about bringing this notion of lived experience into our ethics core. We have only to look at the Supreme Court to realize there’s no such thing as Adam Smith’s impartial spectator. Our experience informs our questions, and how we answer them, and that’s another reason why it’s so important to expose our students to many different perspectives.

Darity: Would you like to teach empathy?

Ananat: Yes! Not just the skill of empathy, which our students have, but you need an actual other person, who has a very specific experience, to feel empathetic toward.

Fleishman: That’s right. You can’t learn empathy by reading about it. That’s the point of experiential education. That’s why since the beginning we’ve combined academic study with actual work in the field. The Center for Child and Family Policy has been doing research and field work right here in Durham, focusing on local problems in health and education, and it’s one of the most active centers at the university. 

Inequality seems to be a common thread in public policy discussions domestically and internationally. Why do you think it’s getting so much attention now?

Darity: The key is the Great Recession. It’s opened the window to a variety of disparities and drawn attention to them— wealth inequality, inequalities associated with health and education outcomes. The direct impact on people, whose lives had otherwise felt reasonably comfortable, made a big difference in this process. Now people are talking about something they’ve been ignoring for close to two decades.

Fleishman: The gap between the richest and poorest has grown in the last twenty-five to thirty years, largely as a function of tax policy, I would argue, but not just that. Social media has played a part in spreading interest in the problem: You couldn’t have had the Occupy Wall Street movement, or the 99 percent/1 percent distinction without it. Popularized by social media and picked up by the press was this idea that 99 percent of the public is being disadvantaged and 1 percent is benefiting from wealth increasing all the time. That’s very powerful, that confluence of forces.

Darity: More attention needs to be paid to what I call intergroup inequality within class—gender, caste, race, and ethnicity. We can also look at inequality in terms of inclusiveness. We had a conference last fall about the inclusiveness of our space programs and leadership. The title was “race in Space,” and the keynote speaker was astronaut Mae Jemison—

Ananat: That sounds amazing. How did I miss this?

Darity: It really was… There’s also an array of policies related to inequality that we can gain insights about if we pay more attention to other parts of the world. One example is affirmative action, which was first implemented on a national scale in India. At the same time a program was adopted in the U.S., one was adopted in Malaysia. What can we learn from the experiences of these other countries? Sunny Ladd and Ted Fiske have done a lot of work on public education systems around the world. I think we may make too much of the distinctions between local, national, and international policies, and would benefit from more comparative study on a range of issues.

Public Policy conversations today are taking place in a highly polarized environment. How does Sanford elevate the national conversation and expand it?

Fleishman: The only way you can do it is to raise up leaders who can speak to all sides and who can reason with all sides. The country is so fragmented at this point, but other democracies around the world are suffering exactly the same problems we have. This is a global problem. The smallest constituencies can topple governments. We’re suffering an utter absence of leadership that can rise above differences. It’s only when you get leaders who may do things that are at odds with their constituencies or their ideologies that you get things done.

Ananat: The idea that any politician will do what’s right if pushed by the public is why I’m optimistic. This generation of young people has been brought up on the rhetoric of equal opportunity. They say, “I believe in this stuff,” but then as adults, they see that, in many cases, their experiences don’t match up with what they’ve been told this country is about. I’m hopeful they won’t stand for it, that they’ll make demands toward the goal of equality, and that the president, from whichever party, will have to address that.

Fleishman: Our new leaders will come from exactly that population liz is talking about. I’m not pessimistic at all.

How do you teach leadership?

Fleishman: Rooting it deeply in history, biography, and ethics.

Ananat: There are other policy schools experimenting with hiring psychologists who study leadership in terms of how to influence people, how to bring disparate groups together to see common interests, using quantitative research. Our students would die for that. Everyone wants to be more influential.

Fleishman: The strategic vision plan suggests creating a new Center for Politics and Political Engagement. Think about that: We put together experiential learning, creating empathy, motivating students to engage politically to do something with that empathy, and bring in leadership skills. You’ve really got something there.

Darity: I’d like to go back for a moment to the integrated treatment of knowledge that Joel mentioned, because I think it relates to the idea of leadership in the field. In our Ph.D. program, candidates have to specialize in a field of concentration, and I would love to see those options expanded to include history and emphatically the natural sciences, because there are so many policy issues related to the sciences. Here’s an issue I keep bringing up, and no one seems to glom onto it, so I’m going to try again: cloning. We have no regulation of cloning technology in this country. We have no systematic policies surrounding cloning—

Ananat: Really? (Nervous laughter all around)

Darity: And we’re on the doorstep of being able to clone human beings. That’s a policy issue that clearly requires scientific knowledge. Genetics, that’s another issue with possibilities for science and policy—

Ananat: We do have a joint Ph.D. program with the Nicholas School. I would say global warming is up there with inequality as the big issue of our century, and, of course, they feed into each other.

There seems to be a level of confusion about what to do about public education today. What is working? How to scale it? Is Sanford looking for solutions, sorting out the problems, or both?

Fleishman: If you’re measuring student impact it’s hard to find specific innovation efforts that have made a significant beneficial impact on student achievement. It’s one reason why foundations have been floundering. The Gates Foundation’s first major initiative was small schools. They invested a billion dollars into small schools—

Ananat: And it was all based on a misunderstanding of statistics!

Fleishman: Yes, and they ended up saying, “Oh I’m sorry it didn’t work,” and canceling it.

Darity: Even though, ultimately, it might not have been a bad idea.

Fleishman: But everyone is grasping for that silver bullet, and even if the silver bullet isn’t completely understood, they end up firing it anyway. As a result, what might have been a good idea gets discredited in the process.

Ananat: And then there’s the question of whether to only implement programs in schools, or to also look at experiences outside the school that influence academic outcomes. We know early childhood interventions work, for example, health interventions—

Fleishman: Giving kids a school breakfast in the classroom.

Darity: And giving it to all the kids.

Ananat: Exactly. That program was found to improve achievement. But, that’s not education, that’s food. Often the achievement results we see are not from changes in teaching methods—having a high-quality teacher does matter, of course—but from programs that address the context of the family: housing, employment, nutrition, transportation. That’s why at Sanford we work on the broader context of educational disparities.

Fleishman: Just as our country—and indeed the world—are evolving in our knowledge about and understanding of the countless problems that affect our lives, so is the field of public policy, and it must if democracy around the world is to survive and prosper in the years ahead.