Batten School's First Five New Faculty Dive Into Duties

September 14, 2010

September 14, 2010 — This spring, the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy hired its first five tenure-track faculty members from outside the University. Four of the five arrived on Grounds ahead of the fall semester, and three of them recently began teaching their first U.Va. classes.

The fifth, Christopher Ruhm, will arrive in January.

Two of the new hires, Ruhm and Thomas Dee, are senior scholars, "regarded as among the very best in the country in their respective fields," said Harry Harding, dean of the Batten School. Both have joint appointments in economics, and Dee is also a research professor of education.

"Tom is a leading scholar of education policy, and thus will foster further collaboration with the Curry School of Education and will be joining our joint Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness," Harding said. "Chris is a leading scholar of health policy, and will help us develop a closer relationship with the Program on Public Health Policy in the School of Medicine.

"Both will play a key role in attracting additional first-rate faculty to the Batten School in the coming years."

The other three new hires are early in their professorial careers, having earned their Ph.D.s within the past four years. They include a married couple, Benjamin Converse and Sophie Trawalter, both of whom have joint appointments in psychology in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Traditionally at public policy schools, psychology has played a minor role, but "psychology is a discipline that is centrally important to the understanding of both leadership and public policy," Harding said. "It provides a rigorous and powerful lens for understanding a variety of key leadership skills, such as persuasion, motivation, negotiation, crisis management and decision-making under conditions of stress and uncertainty.

"Psychology – along with the related field of behavioral economics – also offers increasingly valuable insights into how both leaders and ordinary citizens think about the key choices involved in the identification and framing of issues and the making and implementation of public policy," he added. "And yet, relatively few schools of public policy emphasize psychological analysis in their curricula. This is therefore one of the areas in which the Batten School can become truly distinctive. Moreover, in doing so, we will be cooperating with one of the nation's top-ranked departments of psychology, which has been a great partner in our efforts to recruit Sophie and Ben."

Another of the young scholars, Christine Mahoney, holds a secondary appointment in the College's Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics. She studies how political advocacy and lobbying work in different settings, including countries lacking a well-functioning democracy and international bodies like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization.

"She will significantly enhance our ability to place issues of public policy in a comparative perspective and to understand the ways in which interest groups attempt to influence policy in various political arenas," said Eric Patashnik, a professor of politics and public policy and associate dean of the Batten School.

U.Va. Today recently spoke with all five of the new Batten faculty. A brief introduction to two of them follows. Profiles of the other three will appear in tomorrow's edition of U.Va. Today.

Thomas S. Dee

Dee is a professor of public policy and economics and a research professor of education. He is also a research associate with the programs on education, children and health at the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

Before coming to U.Va., Dee was an associate professor of economics at Swarthmore College and has held visiting appointments at Stanford and Princeton universities. He is a co-editor of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

Dee pursues research relevant to contemporary education and health policy debates, and his research has ranged widely within those two huge domains. He has looked at the effects of minimum legal drinking ages on teen childbearing and has assessed the health consequences of traffic-safety policies, including seat belt laws, drunk-driving laws, motorcycle helmet laws and graduated driver's licenses for teenagers.

On the education side, he has examined whether merit pay rewards good teachers and whether the No Child Left Behind Act has improved math or reading scores. 

Since 1998, he has published more than 40 papers and book chapters.

He has attracted popular media coverage of his research on how college student plagiarism can be reduced through basic education about what constitutes plagiarism and his examination of whether the academic results of college athletes are impacted by anxiety that their poor classroom performance will confirm the negative stereotype of the "dumb jock." (He found that this "stereotype threat" does impact athletes.)

One common thread runs through all his work, Dee said. He seeks out research "at the intersection of an interesting policy question and an opportunity to add to what we know about that policy question. That requires both high-quality data and a research design that will move beyond identifying correlations and allow us to draw reasonably credible causal inference."

This semester Dee is co-teaching "Economic Analysis of Public Policy," a course in which his students have a chance to engage the type of research that is his specialty.

"One of the ways I conceptualize effective leadership," Dee said, "is combining a humility about what we know with a willingness to innovate and engage in rigorous evaluation. It's far too rare to find policymakers who say, 'We're not entirely sure how to do something well. Let's field some alternatives and prepare to learn from them.'"

Christopher J. Ruhm

Beginning in January, Ruhm will be a professor of public policy and economics at U.Va. Until then, he remains the Jefferson-Pilot Excellence Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where he received the Senior Faculty Research Excellence Award in 2003.

Ruhm is also a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research in the health economics, health care policy and children's programs.

During the 1996-97 academic year, he served as a senior economist on President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, focused on health policy, aging and labor market issues.

Ruhm teaches health and labor economics, applied microeconomics and quantitative methods.

Over the past 27 years, Ruhm has written more than 80 articles published as book chapters or in peer-reviewed journals, such as the American Economic Review. He is co-author of the 1990 book, "Turbulence in the American Workplace."

The media have extensively reported on his research finding that people get healthier during economic recessions, likely related to less pollution (due to less industrial activity), along with people smoking, drinking and eating out less (constrained by lower income), having slightly healthier diets, and sleeping and exercising more (thanks to fewer hours worked.)

"The overall effect is pronounced," he said, but measuring the specific contributing factors is difficult. "There are lots of not fully understood, indirect effects that are quite interesting."

Ruhm's current research investigates health behaviors and determinants, including better understanding the causes of the current obesity epidemic. His past research has looked at the causes and economic consequences of alcohol and illegal drug policies.

Another current research focus is family economic issues, including work/family balance during early child-raising years and the effects of parental leave, child care policies and pre-schooling. A current book project is tentatively titled, "Time Off With Baby: The Case for Paid Infant Care Leave."

He is currently vice president of the Southern Economic Association and an associate editor of the Southern Economic Journal, the Journal of Population Economics and the International Journal of Information Security and Privacy.

Funders of Ruhm's research have included the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Science Foundation. Currently, Ruhm and co-investigators are funded by three grants, one from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and two from the National Institutes of Health, cumulatively worth more than $800,000.

— By Brevy Cannon