While Duke’s public policy program was among the first in the country, it was not until 2009 that it officially became a school, a status long enjoyed by many of its peers.

Its evolution from the Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs, as it was originally called, to the Sanford School of Public Policy reflects its increasingly integral role at Duke as well as the value that so many donors have seen in Sanford’s vision for public policy research and education.

When Joel Fleishman first proposed a public policy program to Duke President Terry Sanford in 1970 , he suggested the new entity might be a school. But Fleishman and Sanford were not revamping a pre-existing school of public administration, as took place at Harvard, but creating an entirely new outfit.

Moreover, Duke had just created a new Graduate School of Business Administration in 1969, and there was little administrative appetite for adding another new school that would require significant fundraising and revenue generation. An institute, on the other hand, could more easily graft onto the traditional departments and was more in keeping with the policy program’s initial focus on undergraduate education.

Black and white image old chemistry building
'Old Chem' - 1930s. Image: Duke Yearbook

As the Institute flourished, it outgrew cramped quarters in a building appropriately known as Old Chemistry. While centrally located on Duke’s West Campus, the Old Chemistry building was badly in need of renovation from the moment Fleishman and company set up shop in 1971.

With a dimly lit lobby, thin walls, uneven air conditioning, and unpredictable heating, the building still smelled like a chemistry experiment gone awry.

“There were contests to see who could capture the largest roach in their office,” says Phil Cook. The lounge was “a dingy, damp, un-air-conditioned basement room with a cement floor and furnishings which would embarrass the Salvation Army,” according to a 1976 report.

Such miserable conditions served at least one positive purpose: “Those folks who believe that the Institute gets anything it wants from the University need only to [be] led around the building and invited to the various offices and facilities to be shown differently.”

Even some renovations in the 1980s did little to make the building more hospitable.


Breaking ground on the Sanford School's new building.

A new home

A new facility created the physical conditions that allowed for the Institute to move towards becoming a school. Thanks to a major fundraising campaign led by Bruce Kuniholm with the extraordinary support of Joel Fleishman, the Institute broke ground in 1992 on its new 50,000-square-foot home, off the historic quad but adjacent to Duke’s other professional schools.

One key was circulating the inspiring plans and model for the new building, designed by Architectural Resources of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the same firm that designed the first Harvard Kennedy School building.

A new name

As part of the construction fanfare, the Institute was formally renamed the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. It was a way to recognize Sanford’s founding contributions to the public policy program and to Duke as a whole.

Sanford, a former governor and U.S. senator, also reflected the enthusiastic commitment to public service that Duke sought to instill in the students who walked those halls . The addition of adjacent Rubenstein Hall, completed in 2005 thanks to a gift from David Rubenstein, ensured that the Sanford Institute had ample room to operate as a school.

Over the decades, faculty had floated the idea of upgrading to school status with the administration, including a serious attempt in the mid-1990s. The measure would have helped Sanford expand its graduate programs, though some in and out of the Institute feared that breaking out of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences might ultimately diminish the signature undergraduate program.

]The effort ended when Nannerl Keohane, Duke’s president from 1993 to 2004, put a moratorium on new schools during her tenure.

Soon after the installment of the next Duke President Richard Brodhead, a task force chaired by Bruce Kuniholm worked through the dilemmas of carving out a school without sacrificing the commitment to undergraduate public policy education.

Uplifting public policy to school status indicated how far Sanford had progressed from its early days when it was less welcome among some in the university. Now it was seen as a potential hub that increasingly linked relevant faculty of various schools and departments at Duke in support of Brodhead’s emphasis on “knowledge in the service of society,” the centerpiece of the university’s updated strategic plan.

Despite the fundraising challenges created by the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, Sanford remarkably secured $40 million by 2009 to make the transition.