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Judith Kelley discusses the role of academia in democracy, “Twitter diplomacy” and what’s ahead for public policy scholarship at Duke.

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A scholar of international relations, Judith Kelley began a new role as the leader of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy in the summer of 2018.

Her own research focuses on how international actors can promote democratic and human rights reforms. Kelley is also a dual citizen of the United States and Denmark.

In this Q&A, she describes her early days as dean and the global work happening at the Sanford School.

Q: What has your first year been like as the dean of the Sanford School? Any moments that stand out?

It has been exciting. From the perspective of Global Duke, having Nadia Murad, the 2018 Nobel Peace Laureate, visit Duke only a few weeks after the Prize was announced was amazing. Her talk was deeply moving. Hosting Madeleine Albright was similarly thrilling.

Last November, Sanford’s Duke Center for International Development (DCID) also partnered with the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS) to host the first annual Duke Conference on International Development, The New Building Blocks of Development. The conference engaged policymakers and showcased the exceptional work being done by Duke faculty and students.

Q: Your research focuses on democratic values and human rights – what roles do you see Duke and other universities playing in these spaces?

As a top university, Duke has a responsibility to speak to issues of global governance, human rights and democracy. Academia, like the press, can play an important watch dog role by conducting rigorous research that illuminates historic and present conduct and its effects on society. In addition, I think that given our presence in China, we have a particular responsibility to speak out on human right violations there.


Photo: Madeleine Albright and Judith Kelley on stage for Rubenstein Lecture. 2019.
Judith Kelley (left) leads a discussion with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (right) in the Page Auditorium on February 28, 2019 during the David M. Rubenstein Lecture Series. Photo by Shaun Kenan King
Watch a video of their conversation.


Q: Sanford’s mission statement references connecting with communities around the globe. How does the school connect with people in Durham and around the world?

Each year, we welcome students from more than 20 countries into our master of international development policy program. When they graduate, many return home to apply what they’ve learned, and we now have alumni working in nearly 100 nations, from Myanmar to Kenya to Peru.

In one of the core graduate courses, our students conduct policy research for clients in Durham and around the world. Policy journalism students create The 9th Street Journal, an online newspaper. And this spring, undergraduates researched solutions to policy questions posed by local nonprofits, N.C. legislators and Durham officials – questions such as, “How can the city increase affordable housing as federal funding declines?” These are just a few examples. Public policy is very applied and hands-on, so there are literally hundreds of ways we connect with people, both locally and globally.

Q: What other global research and study happens at the Sanford School?

The Duke Energy Access Project is focused on eliminating energy poverty around the world. In India, students at our Summer School for Future International Development Leaders team up with Indian grad students and local nonprofits to conduct field research in rural villages. In Kunshan, China, along with the Nicholas School, we recently started a master of environmental policy program. Forests in Brazil, schools in New Zealand, power plants in China, watersheds in Ethiopia – research has taken Sanford faculty to all of these places.

Q: During the discussion you hosted with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, what did you learn about the current state of diplomacy?

If anything, the discussion reminded me of the absolute importance of having diplomats who are highly qualified to exercise their duties. Albright is incredibly educated and experienced in world affairs, a capacity on full display in her talk. Her record of diplomacy contrasts with the current use of what some have named “Twitter diplomacy.” Albright worked extensively on several high-profile issues and underscored the importance of high-level preparation and involvement by the US Department of State in foreign affairs.

Q: Where would you like to see the Sanford School grow in the upcoming years?

As the world grows increasingly complex and interdependent across issues, space and time, public policy research and education is more valuable than ever before. Sanford must adapt to meet the impact of technological innovation on policy; the potential for data science to address policy issues; the ethical and regulatory challenges of artificial intelligence, data privacy, and algorithmic policy operation; the automation of the workplace and so forth. We must infuse our curriculum with the cutting-edge skills our students will need and launch new programs that meet the needs of the modern learner, while also strengthening our expertise in the most pressing policy issues of the day.

In the international realm, fortunately Sanford has terrific Duke partners on issues such as climate change and global health. With Sanford’s DCID in the lead, and building on the Sanford School’s strength in key countries such as India, Sanford and Duke can partner to a lot more to harness our expertise in international development across campus.