When the Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs was created in 1971, many bets were made around campus that it would not last long.

Even some supportive administrators who wanted it to succeed thought it would disappear, eventually absorbed by the traditional departments.

But public policy has lasted, both at Duke and across the country. It is one of the largest and oldest undergraduate policy programs in the country, and one of the most popular majors at Duke.

Judith Kelley and Joel Fleishman pose with a bust of the founder of the Sanford School, Terry Sanford
Dean Judith Kelley with Founding Director Joel Fleishman and a bust of Terry Sanford.

If anything, the Sanford School’s undergraduate major—the program that set public policy at Duke apart from its graduate-focused institutional peers—is more relevant today than ever. Its trademarks are now planted across Duke’s curriculum.

Leadership training and summer internships, long core features of Sanford’s undergraduate program, are now integral to Duke as a whole through programs like Duke Engage.

“The modern workforce just demands of students a high capacity to apply analytical tools, to have some mix of quantitative and qualitative skills, to be able to think about stakeholders, to be able to do group work, to be able to think about moral and ethical issues, to think about data, all these kinds of things,” says Judith Kelley, dean of the Sanford School. “I think that there are other majors that provide aspects of these, but I think Sanford’s undergraduate degree in public policy provides a comprehensive package of these skills.”

The zero-sum era, in which traditional departments feared that Sanford’s gain was their loss, is over.

“It’s too big as an institution,” says Roy Weintraub, an emeritus economist and former administrator at Duke. Courses with “policy” in the title now turn up across Duke’s course catalog.

Public Engagement

Faculty at the Sanford School have prioritized public engagement since the early days when Kuniholm worked at the State Department and a number of faculty provided Congressional testimony.  Sanford has piloted numerous projects that push policy knowledge beyond the academic journal: Policy Bridge, which worked to connect scholars across campus with practitioners; Polis: the Center for Politics; and the Center for Child and Family Policy, which has put its research findings in action through direct contact with legislators . Policy impact is not only a source of pride for many Sanford scholars but also an asset in tenure and promotion.

“If you think of the two things that are the university’s two claims to fame now, it’s interdisciplinarity and knowledge in the service of society,” says Kelley. “Those both really were the seeds of the founding of public policy. And now it’s the claim of the university as a whole.”

Interdisciplinarity and knowledge in the service of society. Those both really were the seeds of the founding of public policy. And now it’s the claim of the university as a whole.

Judith Kelley