Since its founding in 1971, the Sanford School of Public Policy has been at the forefront of the movement that carved out public policy as a distinct field.

The school, originally named the Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs, quickly distinguished itself from other policy programs through an emphasis on undergraduate education and the humanistic dimension of public policy . Two people were instrumental in its creation: its namesake, Terry Sanford, and its founding director, Joel Fleishman.

Terry Sanford
Terry Sanford, undated photo

Terry Sanford, the former governor of North Carolina, became Duke’s president following the campus tumult of the late 1960s. Like many universities, Duke was shaken by a series of protests, including a takeover of the main administrative building by African American students in February 1969 that ended in tear gas and pepper spray . The Board of Trustees tapped Sanford to calm campus tensions and take Duke to ambitious new heights as a national university.

Establishing a program in public policy helped Sanford achieve both goals. Public policy appealed to students who wanted a more relevant education, one that spoke to the burning issues of that era.

It was a way to channel student energy to work within the system, rather than outside it. And the new Institute signaled Duke’s ambition to join the ranks of top universities, which at that time housed most of the other fledgling public policy programs.

Joel Fleishman, outside, sitting and smiling
Joel Fleishman, 2022

Sanford was convinced to start a public policy program by Joel Fleishman, then associate director for program development at Yale University’s Institute of Social Science.

Fleishman had served as Sanford’s legal aide during his gubernatorial term, and he was well acquainted with the burgeoning public policy movement.

He had outlined the Ford Foundation’s investment strategy for public policy, having conducted a major review of graduate training for public service in the early 1970s.

His recommendations guided almost $4 million in Ford Foundation grants that supported the important early years of public policy at Harvard, Michigan, Carnegie-Mellon, California–Berkeley, and other early movers.

The Best of Two Worlds

Public policy, in Fleishman’s view , hitched the best of mainstream academia to the service mission of schools of public administration, with their aim to improve governmental capacity. It was a promising new field that could wed the strengths of the traditional social sciences—rigorously adept at describing policy problems—with the need for prescribing policy solutions, carefully assessing what worked and what did not.

Moreover, it could reconnect economics, political science, and other disciplines that had become siloed, bridging methodological differences with common challenges. It took a year to win Fleishman’s commitment to come to Duke.

After initially rebuffing Sanford, Fleishman agreed only to outline a public policy program that fit Duke’s particular needs. Sanford told him it was exactly what he wanted—and once again asked Fleishman to come to Duke to run it.

Happy at Yale, Fleishman agonized over the decision, but on President’s Day, 1971, he committed. Despite three degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he has remained committed to Duke ever since.

Early challenges

The new Institute faced several challenges in its early years—chiefly a zero-sum mentality from some faculty members in traditional departments, including political science, economics, and history.

The Institute was “taking money out of the pockets of other departments,” as one faculty member complained to The Chronicle, the student paper.

But much of the initial funding came from outside sources, including large grants from philanthropic foundations: Sloan, Rockefeller, Ford, GE, Markle, and the Commonwealth Fund. Sanford, Fleishman, and an energetic young faculty—at first jointly appointed to both public policy and a traditional department—quickly demonstrated that public policy would expand and enrich education and research at Duke without diminishing other disciplines.

In 1982, Fleishman stepped down as Institute director and took charge of Duke’s first major capital campaign, modernizing the school’s development organization. More than any other individual, it was economist Philip J. Cook, whom Bruce Kuniholm subsequently characterized as “the intellectual godfather” of the Institute, who molded the place in Fleishman’s absence.

Phillip Cook
Professor Phil Cook, undated photo

Fleishman hired Cook fresh out of graduate school in 1973 and he remained through his retirement to emeritus status in 2017. For half of those years, Cook was either associate director or director.

“Phil Cook was really the intellectual driving force in many ways of the school for a very long time,” says Frederick “Fritz” Mayer, who joined Sanford in 1988. With his “very clear idea of what constituted excellent research,” as Mayer puts it, Cook shaped who was hired, promoted, and retained.

Cook was especially sensitive to the critique that public policy was a soft field, more interested in advocacy than academic rigor, and he was careful in his tenure to combat such charges with hard evidence.

“It was assumed that we were going to be the policy-wolicy crowd, a term I heard more than once,” says Cook. The term implied that policy relevance and policy engagement would substitute for rigor. “It was something that I was very aware of all the way through the various leadership positions that I had.”

He pushed back against those who claimed the major was “soft.” As Cook explains, “I wanted our image on campus to match the reality that we were another group of serious scholars doing first-rate work.”