Batten School Charts Its Own Path to Excellence

Unlike many public policy schools where curriculum and faculty have been shaped by the Great Society agenda of the 1960s – President Johnson's significant expansion of government health care, education and social safety net services – the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, created in 2007, has the freedom to orient itself to the challenges of the 21st century, according to Dean Harry Harding.

Among those challenges are the rise of international, borderless issues like terrorism and climate change. For-profit corporations and non-governmental advocacy groups are playing an increasingly important role in shaping public policy, and Batten graduates are going into those two sectors, along with the government sector, roughly in equal thirds, he said.

As Harding first outlined when he arrived on Grounds in 2009, Batten distinguishes itself among public policy schools with a unique combination of four emphases: examining leadership and teaching leadership skills; experiential learning; broader interdisciplinary approaches to public policy, including history, ethics and social psychology, as well as the traditional mainstays of politics and economics; and looking at public policy from a global perspective.

Three years after taking the helm, Harding remains committed to those distinguishing features and a strategy of "being excellent by being distinctive," he said.

He sat down with U.Va. Today to discuss how the Batten School has evolved in the past three years, and what's ahead.

Teaching Leadership

"We are focused on leadership to a degree that few other public policy schools are," Harding said. Unlike conventional wisdom about the nature of leadership, "the Batten School believes that leadership is a set of skills that can be taught, as well as a set of personality traits that can be developed," he noted.

Recent social psychology research is providing new insights about critical leadership skills like team building, negotiation and persuasion, along with insights into organizational behavior and how incentives impact motivation, Harding said. That research will guide the evolution of how Batten teaches leadership skills.

A Growing Global Focus

Batten currently offers several classes with an international focus, and students can tailor their Applied Policy Project – essentially, an unpaid consultancy for a real-world organization – and their internships to an international focus of their choosing. Still, students are clamoring for an even more globalized curriculum and program, Harding said.

So Batten is looking at how to more thoroughly globalize its curriculum and existing programs, Harding said. "We need to put more meat on those bones."

Batten's rapidly growing enrollment – the school, which had about 80 students during the past academic year, expects to roughly double that number this fall and triple it in fall 2014 – will make it more feasible to expand programs and add offerings, Harding said.

Expanding Batten's faculty is another key to bolstering its global offerings. Harding has overseen the hiring of 10 current tenure-track faculty members from outside the University, including four recent hires who will begin teaching this fall. Batten plans to hire five more faculty members over the next four years, he said.

Experiential Learning

The Batten School's emphasis on experiential learning goes well beyond the required Applied Policy Project.

Students love Batten's policymaking simulations, Harding said, where they role-play scenarios like a House-Senate conference committee convening to negotiate a foreign aid or defense bill.

Months after doing that simulation this spring, Daniel Sater, a May graduate, reported a deja vu moment this summer while working on the floor of the North Carolina General Assembly. There, just like during his simulation, the majority party prevented the minority party from amending a bill by "filling the amendment tree" – taking up all the allotted amendment slots before the minority party could offer any. While most of Sater's fellow young General Assembly staffers were dumbfounded by the obscure tactic, he understood exactly what was happening.

"Role playing at this professional level really prepares students for the real world," Harding said.

Batten students also study leadership crises, and this fall three Batten courses will add a case study on leadership lessons to be learned from the recent ouster and reinstatement of U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan.

Context Matters

Recent research indicates that the recipe for effective leadership varies according to the context – including the culture of an organization or community, the sector of society and specific policy arena, and larger historical trends.

For instance, Harding said, an influential case study of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani argues that his leadership style was perfect for responding to the 9/11 attacks. But before the attacks, when dealing with the more routine challenges facing city hall, his leadership was below average.

The importance of leadership context is just beginning to be understood and represents a major horizon of research, Harding said.

That presents an exciting opportunity for Batten and U.Va., Harding said, because "leadership is in U.Va.'s DNA" and is already addressed and studied in a variety of contexts across Grounds – from education, nursing and business leadership to the study and training of state and local elected leaders by the Sorensen Institute, to the Miller Center's renowned study of the American presidency. In addition, Batten's own faculty specialize in various contexts of leadership, from Congress to international advocacy groups.

With so many different parts of the University each looking at leadership in a slightly different context, U.Va. has enormous potential – and a comparative advantage – for furthering research on the context of leadership, Harding said.

Such research should be jumpstarted by a new interdisciplinary faculty working group on leadership, created this spring, which is bringing together U.Va.'s many existing leadership programs and initiatives, Harding said.

The group is co-chaired by Eric Patashnik, a professor of politics and public policy and Batten's associate dean for academic affairs, and Tom Bateman, Bank of America Professor in the McIntire School of Commerce. The group currently has 30 faculty members representing eight of U.Va.'s 11 schools, along with the Miller Center and the Sorensen Institute.

The group will map current threads of teaching and research, identify best practices in leadership education and host forums and guest speakers.

A second new cross-Grounds working group is focused on social entrepreneurship. Chaired by Batten professor Christine Mahoney, with 25 faculty representing 10 schools, the group has created three new courses on social entrepreneurship to be offered in the coming academic year, with support from the Batten School and funding from the Alumni Association's Jefferson Trust and Students Entrepreneurs for Economic Development. Faculty and instructors from four U.Va. schools will team with experienced social entrepreneurs, including U.Va. alumni, to teach the courses.

The Batten School is still new and small, Harding said. "As we gain experience and grow, and gain a critical mass of students and faculty, it will be more feasible to further expand our existing programs, add new programs and carry some of these innovations to the next level."

– by Brevy Cannon