Talking to Matt Cullinan

The chair of the board of visitors answers a few questions
Writer: 
October 13, 2015

Matt Cullinan M.P.P. ’90 has enjoyed a long and successful career as an academic administrator, first at the University of Notre Dame, where he earned his bachelor’s and doctorate in history, later at Wake Forest University. He joined the Sanford board of visitors in 2006 and became chair earlier this year. The board of visitors provides advice and support to the school regarding curriculum, programs, development, external relations, and other matters. Board members also serve as mentors to students, sponsor interns, host events for students, and assist in enabling fellowships for graduate interns. Cullinan not only earned his master’s degree at Sanford; it’s where he met his wife, Ann Reilly M.P.P. ’90.

When you talk with other Sanford alumni, what are they most passionate about in regard to Sanford, and what are their concerns?

On the passionate side, I think folks focus on the deep quality of the education they’ve gotten at Sanford, both undergraduate and graduate. There’s a real sense of a strong educational environment, a core set of committed faculty and a community devoted to change through well-thought-out public policy. Alumni embrace the idea of its importance in the world. So those are the sorts of things that come through strongly. The education is rigorous and demanding academically, but it’s also focused on key issues that people are going to want to work on in the world.

I don’t sense any particular concerns aside from wondering if the school is thinking big enough, something I believe Duke graduates in general ask as well. I think people are still ambitious. They want Sanford to be the best.

Can you give us a very brief State of the Union as you see it in regard to the Sanford School? Where does it stand compared with other public policy schools and institutes?

Sanford certainly is among the handful of very best schools. Its offerings are well regarded, and our alumni continue to be very successful. I think one of the issues that Duke has been wrestling with is how do you tie a big university with lots going on more firmly together. The university sees public policy as one of those areas where it can cut across different disciplinary boundaries and really make an impact.

The other factor is that the school has just come through a pretty significant time of transition. Standing up Sanford as a school took extraordinary energy and effort. Added to that, the generation that helped build the school is getting to the point in their careers where they’re thinking about whether they go to emeritus status or what they might do next. So the key issues are how to sustain a vibrant community and continue to build a first-rate school during a period of change. I think the dean, Kelly Brownell, has done that well.

You earned your master’s of public policy twenty-five years ago. What have proven to be the most important lessons from your study at Sanford?

The first lesson that comes to mind is the ability to break down a set of issues analytically and come to understand them in more meaningful ways than may appear on the surface. With that is this sense of how do you meld the quantitative, the qualitative, and human dynamics to be able to problem-solve in an organization. I’ve found that very valuable over time in my work in higher education because those are big, complicated organizations with lots of competing factions. We learned that set of skills through a combination of really great teachers, like Charlie Clotfelter, Sunny Ladd, Fritz Mayer, and Dick Stubbing. They helped us develop a set of tools that were not specific to any one policy area per se, but were general enough in character that you could apply them in a lot of different settings.

Second was the rigor of being able to put down ideas, recommendations, analysis, and arguments in very concise ways. The two-page policy memo drove everybody crazy when we were working on them. I found memo writing to be one of the great disciplines in my life, to be able to be concise and to the point and get everything in that needed to be in and nothing more.

What’s your message to Sanford alumni from the board of visitors?

The first message is that if you haven’t been keeping up, you need to know what Sanford is up to, its success, the constant drive to improve, and its desire to engage the issues of the day.

The other is that we really want you to be connected. This is a place that makes a difference. And it makes a difference because it’s able to engage people at a particular point in their lives, to have an impact on them, which in turn allows them to have an even greater impact on the broader society and world.

The other thing is, Sanford is a real community. It’s a place where people are deeply connected and have a passion about the important challenges of the day. It also is a place that values not simply the intellectual enterprise but the ability to act on those ideas in concrete ways. That was a spirit bequeathed by Terry Sanford, our founder, and people like Joel Fleishman, who really made the school possible. And that’s still very much alive and vibrant at Sanford.