How POLIS was born

The new Center for Politics, Leadership, Innovation, and Service was inspired by a desire to realize Terry Sanford's vision of public policy solving the issues of the day

It was a bucket of cold water thrown by an unlikely assailant.

In a talk at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, Eric Mlyn, executive director of DukeEngage, worried that programs like his may actually be perpetuating an unhealthy idea.

“My worry,” he said, “is that we’re teaching this generation of students that the solution to the education problem in the United States is tutoring children.”

Mlyn meant that volunteerism alone is not enough to address the great issues of the day, that we also need good public policies. And good public policy depends on healthy politics.

For many Sanford faculty members listening that day, Mlyn’s talk crystallized a thought that had been in their minds for some time: Today’s dysfunctional politics is turning off a generation, and politics will be in even greater trouble if the next generation turns away from it.

True to the legacy of Terry Sanford, the North Carolina governor, Duke president, and U.S. senator who held a deep belief in the power of politics to improve the lives of people, the Sanford faculty decided to do something about it.

In December 2013, Alma Blount, director of the school’s Hart Leadership Program, and Frederick “Fritz” Mayer, associate dean for strategy and innovation, issued an open invitation to discuss the issue over lunch. To their surprise, more than twenty of their colleagues showed up to that first meeting, and they kept meeting, every other week through the spring of 2014.

Different people took turns leading the effort, among them Mlyn, David Schanzer, Sanford professor of the practice and a former congressional staffer, and Bob Korstad, professor of public policy and history.

“I think what drove us was a shared recognition that this was too big an issue to ignore,” Mayer says. “If our politics is broken, all the great policy analysis in the world won’t make a difference.”

The discussions included a few universal ideas. Among them is the notion that today’s students are still idealists; they want to change the world as much as previous generations. Indeed, some surveys show millennials are more motivated to make a difference than previous generations. Yet, increasingly, they are actively distancing themselves from all things political.

For many, the ultimate hero is the social entrepreneur, creator of ventures like micro-lending banks or TOMS shoes, which donates a pair of shoes to needy people for every pair bought. While the group sees those efforts as valuable, they also believe a healthy democracy requires informed and inspired young people engaged in political life, as citizens, advocates, policy experts, organizers, journalists, teachers, and political candidates.

After a little more than a year of brainstorming and discussion involving faculty members and students inside Sanford and out, the Sanford School decided to embark on what could be the school’s most ambitious effort ever: the Center for Politics, Leadership, Innovation, and Service, known as POLIS.

Says Sanford Dean Kelly Brownell: “I see POLIS as a signature initiative of the Sanford School. It is a testament to our faculty’s eagerness to engage with one of the most pressing issues of our time in innovative ways.” The center is being launched with financial support from the 2013 gift from trustee David M. Rubenstein ’70 that funds efforts to enhance the school’s engagement with the policy world.

Mayer will direct POLIS in its first years.“I can’t wait to get started,” he says. “Of course our goals are ambitious, perhaps even ‘outrageous,’ to quote Terry Sanford. But there is much already happening at Duke to build on, and enormous talent and energy and entrepreneurial spirit in the Duke community to tap into.”

Landy Elliott ’04, former director of the Duke in Washington office, returned to Durham earlier this year to serve as associate director. “There are so many exciting ideas for POLIS that the real—and fun—challenge is in deciding what to focus on first,” she says.

In addition to creating the basics, like a website that will serve as a clearinghouse for politics-related activities across campus, Elliott says the new center is pursuing research and programming opportunities to “inspire students and faculty to jump in, get involved, and imagine politics at its best.”

Next year, POLIS will focus on the election, eschewing the usual horse-race coverage of who’s winning and losing to address problems with the way the race is run. Among the likely issues POLIS will examine: the implications of money in politics, the nature of media coverage, deepening political polarization, and distrust of political institutions.

On the student-engagement side, some of POLIS’s initial efforts will focus on building an “onramp” to politics and political life. A curriculum developed in partnership with the Hart Leadership Program likely will include a gateway course, a summer politics-related internship experience, and a capstone seminar the following fall. “Duke Embark,” developed by Sanford’s career services office, will take undergraduates to Washington in October to meet people with careers in the political and policy realms, and plans to connect current students with alumni who can be career mentors are underway.

“Student learning and experiences will be at the heart of POLIS. I love the emphasis on leadership, innovation, and service,” says Blount.

Diego Quezada ’15, who served on the school’s board of visitors and the POLIS planning committee while a student, knows that POLIS faces a tough audience. “Politics is a dirty word to students,” he says flatly. Sanford students care about solving problems, he says, but they think they can only solve them through social innovation.

Quezada, who now works for the Hart Leadership Program, offers a quote to students who underestimate the importance of politics, culled from a favorite book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, by former Yale professor William Deresiewicz: “You might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.”

Still, Elliott knows POLIS will need to be creative and relevant to capture student attention. “We have to make it something that’s cool, that’s fun to be a part of, but that also inspires them to get off the sidelines and participate in making things better,” she says.

“Think that voting booths are outdated and stuck in the last century? Apply to our ‘democracy lab’ to work with faculty and practitioners to cook up a new design. Tired of hearing only stories about partisan rancor and polarization during the campaigns? Come attend a POLIS storytelling competition about building coalitions and reaching across the aisle.”

If turning students on to politics is going to be a challenge for POLIS, the center’s other goal, to improve the dysfunctional politics of our times, is even more ambitious. “If it were easy, someone would have fixed it already,” acknowledges Mayer.

As a start, Mayer and Elliott imagine POLIS as a place that celebrates and models civil discourse. Bringing together people with different views and ideologies to discover the source of their disagreement and to find common ground will be a major purpose of the new center.

Or, as Michael Schoenfeld ’84, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, and Sanford public policy alumnus, calls it, “a demilitarized zone.”

“Are we going to fundamentally change the system? Probably not,” he says. “Are we going to make the system better? Yes.”

Mayer says POLIS differs in significant ways from politics programs at other universities, such as the venerable Institute of Politics at Harvard and Chicago’s new Institute of Politics, founded by David Axelrod, former political adviser to President Bill Clinton and campaign adviser to Barack Obama.

Both are great places, says Mayer, but they tend to be largely extracurricular and not integrated with the research and teaching of faculty. POLIS will strive to do both.

And one advantage POLIS enjoys is that no other U.S. university has as large an undergraduate program in public policy as Duke. Sanford graduates some 200 public policy majors a year, Mayer says.

“We have such extraordinary students. Our dream is that they will be the leaders who invent a new and healthier politics for the twenty-first century.”

The associate dean says POLIS represents a realization of the ambitions held for the school by then-Duke President Sanford and the founding director of the public policy program, Joel Fleishman.

Fleishman and Sanford’s vision was for the school to be more than a technical training place for policy analysts. They wanted faculty members and students to be engaged in the issues of the times.

After his political career was over, Sanford returned to Duke to teach. “It was such a great treat for us,” Mayer says, “and in his own gentle way he was constantly nudging us to be more engaged, to identify the major problems of the day, and be oriented toward problem-solving in the world.”

With the creation of POLIS, that gentle nudge becomes a full-time commitment.

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