Batten School's First Five New Faculty Dive Into Duties (Part 2)

September 15, 2010

September 15, 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 doctorates 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.

UVA Today recently spoke with all five of the new Batten faculty. In today's second installment of this story, below we introduce the trio of younger faculty. Click here to read about Thomas Dee and Christopher Ruhm.

Benjamin A. Converse

Benjamin A. Converse is an assistant professor of public policy and psychology, with joint appointments in the Batten School and the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Psychology.  

Converse completed his Ph.D. in managerial and organizational behavior this summer at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, where he was a teaching assistant for courses on managerial decision-making, organizational management and negotiations – three topics "of direct interest to the Batten School," Patashnik said.

Converse helped teach a two-week negotiation class to high-level executives from around the world at Booth's campuses in London, Singapore and Chicago – "a very powerful learning experience," he said.

His research focus
is social psychology, and the psychology of judgment and decision-making. His research investigates basic psychological processes – such as motivation, social judgment and inferences about others' mental states – "that have critical implications for management, leadership and policy," he said. For instance, people in general are "quite bad at understanding what motivates other people," he said. "Leaders can benefit from a better understanding."

One aim of Converse's research is to contribute to better "choice architecture" that can help people to make beneficial decisions. Scholars in fields such as behavioral economics, social psychology and decision-making have found that how a choice is structured (what and how many options are offered, how clearly options are explained, the default choice, etc.) influences people's decision-making. In the recent book, "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness", authors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler make the strongest case yet, Converse said, that better choice architecture can improve policy outcomes.

"Psychologists have a good understanding of many of the systematic judgmental errors or cognitive biases that can influence things," Converse said. For instance, when two groups must negotiate a price for something about which they have very little information, numerous experiments have found that whatever the first number spoken by either side – whether a whisper under the breath of $100 million, or $1,000 – is highly correlated with the final selling price.

Psychologists explain this with the theory of a mental "anchor point." The "number floating in the air, even if not objectively relevant to what's being discussed, gets stuck in your head and provides an anchor point, as it's called," he said. "Then you start thinking relative to that point, thinking of things that are worth $100 million or $1,000. This is a very basic, very robust finding of psychology."

Converse will teach a new (case-based) Batten class on negotiations, a Batten core class on leadership and a third class related to choice architecture.

"I'm really excited about how Batten recognizes the value of the basic psychological research we do and acknowledging that you have to start with these lower-level principles in order to build up a body of knowledge that can then be used in a policy or organizational domain," he said.

Christine Mahoney

Christine Mahoney is an assistant professor of public policy and holds a secondary appointment in the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Politics. This semester she is teaching a course on global advocacy. She will also teach classes on policymaking and the politics of the European Union.

Mahoney comes to U.Va. from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, where she was an assistant professor and directed both the Center for European Studies and the Maxwell European Union Center of Excellence. She received her Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in 2006 with concentrations in American politics, comparative politics, research methods and statistical analysis.

Her research focuses on how political advocacy plays out in different settings, especially those with "democracy deficits" where decision makers are not systematically held democratically accountable through regular elections. Examples include the many countries of the world lacking a fully functioning democratic system, as well as "transnational governance" bodies like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization.

In that vein, this summer she will lead a graduate-level program on global advocacy that will bring together American and European students, in partnership with the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Belgium and the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, two of the leading public policy institutes in Europe.

"I think the 'Y' generation is more mobilized on globalization issues than any generations before," she said.

Her 2008 book, "Brussels Versus the Beltway: Advocacy in the United States and the European Union" is the first large-scale comparative study of advocacy in the U.S. and EU. One reviewer called the book "path-breaking," and Grant Jordan of the University of Aberdeen said, "with hindsight, research should always have been like this. Hard to imagine this won't change future practice."

The book grew out of two summers she spent – while earning her Ph.D. – working for a lobbying firm in Brussels, where there was much discussion comparing how things work in Brussels versus in Washington.

She has had articles published in several public policy journals, and has contributed to a number of edited volumes on aspects of advocacy and lobbying, including the framing of issues and the creation of networks and coalitions, from interest groups and non-governmental organizations to ad hoc collective action groups and social movements.

Her current research focuses on advocacy for the 40 million refugees and displaced peoples worldwide, most forced to flee their homes as a result of ethnic and political violence. Over the past three years, she has done field work in seven conflict areas across the globe where people have been displaced for decades: in Croatia, Colombia, Uganda, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Nepal.

"These are some of the most vulnerable people in world. They can't speak for themselves, and the NGOs who are there to help them are also vulnerable," she said. Her current book project is tentatively titled, "Transnational Advocacy: Fighting for the Rights of the Displaced Locally, Nationally And Globally."

Sophie Trawalter

Sophie Trawalter is an assistant professor of public policy and psychology, with joint appointments in the Batten School and the Department of Psychology.  

She studies how people navigate social diversity, including racial, ethnic and class diversity.

A large body of research has found that social interactions among members of different ethnic and racial groups are often stressful, she said. Building on that research, she studies the strategies people use to cope with this stress, how some people thrive in such situations and how best to help people reduce stress and develop competency. She also studies related issues like people's ability to detect discrimination accurately and threat responses to young African-American men.

"Ultimately, the aim of this work is to develop constructive strategies to cope with the challenges of diversity," she said. 

A mountain of studies have found that white and non-white Americans have very divergent views of how our society works, she said – whether it's fair or not, the impact of discrimination and how best to resolve those issues, such as with affirmative action.

Interracial conversations about these racially charged issues are quite stressful for white Americans, research has found, but having such conversations is a prerequisite for developing better solutions. "Without communication, we're not going to find solutions that satisfy everyone," Trawalter said.

"I hope my research will inform the way we approach interracial interactions."

She began her current research focus while earning her Ph.D. in psychological and brain sciences from Dartmouth College in 2006. Then she refined the focus from 2007 to 2009, with help from a National Service Research Award from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, as a post-doctoral fellow at Cells to Society: The Center on Social Disparities and Health at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

She came to U.Va. following a year as an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she received the 2009 William Burwell Harrison Fellowship.

Trawalter has co-written 14 research papers published in peer-reviewed journals, beginning in 2000 when she was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Trawalter's work involves both theory and application: social psychology theory inspires her strategies to improve inter-group relations, but those strategies must also be field tested, she said. "Batten is an incredible place" for fostering that mix of theory and application.

"This research has important implications both for leadership behavior and for several aspects of social policy," Patashnik said.

This semester, Trawalter is teaching a new course on "Wise Interventions: Social Psychology and Public Policy" that overlaps with her scholarship.

"This is what I'm passionate about, what I love," she said.

— By Brevy Cannon