While the undergraduate program caught on immediately, the Sanford School’s graduate programs developed at a slower pace.
The master’s degree has gone through several iterations before Duke adopted the standard Master in Public Policy (MPP), while a Ph.D. program began operation decades after Sanford was founded. The evolution of Sanford’s graduate programs reflects the maturation of public policy as a professional field and the ascendance of Duke University to the top tier.
The Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs started its master’s program in 1974, three years after it began offering undergraduate courses. Public policy still had a frontier-like sense of experimentation.
Across the country, programs diverged over the details of their graduate programs, varying in curricular focus and even in the nomenclature of their degrees.
The School of Urban and Public Affairs at Carnegie-Mellon offered a heavily quantitative Master of Science in Public Policy and Management. Harvard’s Kennedy School conferred a Master of Public Policy (MPP).
Joel Fleishman, the Institute’s founder, opted to create a joint-degree program that offered a Master of Arts in Public Policy Sciences. Students could enroll only if they were already admitted as part of another graduate program, tacking on another year to their studies to earn the public policy degree.
At the time, Fleishman was not convinced that training in public policymaking could substitute for professional or disciplinary degrees in the public sector. As he observed in his report to the Ford Foundation, the largest share of civil servants had backgrounds in law or engineering, two fields that Fleishman targeted for joint students.
The initial program indeed attracted law students in the greatest numbers, who came from several local universities, including UNC and Wake Forest.
It pulled in a smattering of students from other departments.
One joint history Ph.D. student, Bruce Kuniholm, was hired at the Institute after graduating with his PhD in 1976, serving in the early years as director of undergraduate studies, and subsequently as one of its most influential directors, overseeing the building and move to a new facility (1989-1994), guiding the transition to a full-fledged school (2005-2009) and subsequently serving as its first dean 2009-2013).
“I got interested in foreign policy because I was wondering what the hell Vietnam was all about,” says Kuniholm, who fought in the conflict as a Marine.
Most of the Duke history department’s curriculum stopped at World War II, so in 1973 he sought a meeting with Joel Fleishman who, after a long conversation about the the importance of history and its uses in contemporary public policy issues, offered him a scholarship to the program and a subsequent position as an instructor.
Creation of the MPP degree
In 1978, the faculty voted by the narrowest margin, 8-7, to create a stand-alone MPP degree.
It remained a small and tenuous endeavor until Helen “Sunny” Ladd, who joined the Institute in 1986, molded the MPP program in line with top-flight policy graduate schools.
Ladd was recruited from the Harvard Kennedy School to Duke, where she remained for the rest of her career. Under Ladd’s guidance, the program became more professionally oriented, reflecting the increased respectability of training in public policy analysis, in government, the non-profit sector, and even in the corporate world. “I think the move from an MA program to an MPP was essential to our progress,” says Ladd .
Compared with institutional peers, Sanford’s MPP program remained small during the 1990s, a challenging period to attract students because of the booming economy. It required a particular service-oriented outlook for students to choose public policy over more lucrative prospects on Wall Street or in the nascent tech sector.
Frederick “Fritz” Mayer, a faculty member at Sanford from 1988 to 2019, also played an instrumental role in building up the MPP program.
“We created programs with the military, with the Peace Corps, with Teach for America,” says Mayer. Under Mayer’s direction, the MPP cohorts almost doubled. He pushed to internationalize the curriculum, launching a summer program in Geneva that expanded internship possibilities.
Ladd and Mayer both championed the creation of a Ph.D. program in public policy, which Sanford launched in 2006.
This too reflected how public policy had become mainstream. Initially, the assumption had been that faculty members would be trained in traditional disciplines—usually economics or political science. But increasingly, academics with degrees in public policy were hired on as tenure-track faculty members—including Mayer, whose degree in public policy came from the Kennedy School. “There still is debate,” says Mayer. “Is public policy a discipline?” He points to the wide range of methods that span political science, a so-called traditional discipline. “I mean, what are we talking about here? We’re asking for a kind of purity that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
Today, the Sanford School’s MPP program brings in 60 to 65 students a year, and it is ranked by U.S. News & World Report a top program in environmental policy, public policy analysis, social policy and health policy. It continues to attract joint-degree students from the law, business, medicine, divinity, and the Nicholas School of the Environment.
The Ph.D. program has demonstrated a strong track record of placing students. Like public policy as a field, the Sanford School’s graduate programs have become integral to the larger academic landscape.