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Introducing POLIS: The Center for Politics, Leadership, Innovation and Service

October 30, 2015


An essential part of life or a dirty word? It depends on whom you ask.

According to many students, it’s the latter. Hyper-partisanship, incivility, and dysfunction in Washington dominate the headlines, so it’s no wonder young people are disenchanted with the political process and even, in some cases, actively avoid it at all costs.

Duke POLIS cartoonIt’s a peculiar position, especially considering that college students are typically idealists and deeply committed to improving the lives of those around them. Yet they see government as an impediment to progress, not a key ingredient.

But what if we could harness the talent, energy, creativity and ambition of students, faculty and staff to change that? To not only inspire students to see politics as a viable, aspirational and necessary pursuit, but to improve the health of our political system in the process?

Enter POLIS: The Center for Politics, Leadership, Innovation and Service. Born of a years-long grassroots effort of Duke faculty concerned with political cynicism and apathy on campus, POLIS seeks to:

  1. Inspire and empower Duke students to engage in political life in all its forms, and
  2. Improve democratic processes in the United States and around the world.

These may be lofty ambitions, but Duke and the Sanford School are getting started. According to Landy Elliott, the newly hired associate director of POLIS, the center has begun pursuing programming and research opportunities “to inspire students and faculty to jump in, get involved and imagine politics at its best.”

In addition to covering the basics, such as creating on online clearinghouse for all political opportunities on campus, POLIS’s first year will highlight speakers and programs that focus not on politics as it is, but politics as it could or should be.

Activities in the pipeline include:

  • political skill-building workshops
  • a pilot leadership initiative that includes a spring course and summer internship grants (in partnership with the Sanford School’s Hart Leadership Program)
  • experimental research opportunities to reimagine political and policymaking challenges
  • collaborations with the arts and storytelling communities
  • forums and panels that model civil discourse
  • events related to the 2016 elections.

“I’m so excited about the potential of POLIS,” said Frederick “Fritz” Mayer, associate dean of strategy and innovation at Sanford and director of POLIS. “It’s going to be a real signature of Sanford’s commitment to engaging the great issues of our time in innovative ways.”

About the name: POLIS

More than just an acronym, the name POLIS also references the Athenian polis, the Greek word for city-state and the site of the first great experiment in democracy. By connecting to this original democratic undertaking, where it was the duty of every citizen to participate fully in public affairs, POLIS signals its commitment to facing the political challenges of our time by drawing on the same spirit of deliberation, cooperation, and innovation that was a hallmark of our democracy’s forbearers.