August 20, 2009 — The United States faces daunting challenges: pulling out of the Great Recession, extending health care coverage while better controlling costs, turning around failing schools, gaining energy security and dealing with climate change before it causes irreparable damage to the planet.
Listen to Dean Harding:
At the same time, many Americans are deeply skeptical of the effectiveness of government and are actively questioning the proper role of government in our society.
This constellation of challenges makes this "an extraordinarily exciting, challenging and rewarding time to study public policy," Harry Harding, the new dean of the University of Virginia's Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy, said Tuesday at the Miller Center of Public Affairs.
Harding shared his vision for the new school as he welcomed about 30 rising fourth-year students starting the Batten School's combined bachelor's/master's of public policy program. His remarks kicked off a four-day orientation packed with introductions, group meals and panel discussions on careers, ethics and self-assessment.
One of America's preeminent China scholars, Harding recently arrived on Grounds after five months in Hong Kong. He will serve as the first dean of the Batten School after 10 years as the dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, where he was credited with establishing the school's reputation as an internationally competitive graduate program.
The Batten School's recent founding in April 2007 means it is still evolving, and can do so in ways uniquely suited to today's world, he said. "We are not path-bound. We can chart our own course, and I think that we will do so in quite different ways in the early part of 21st century than if we had established the school in 1920, or in 1950, or even in 1970."
Harding asked the students to help him mold the school by putting together a yearlong series of lectures and seminars on leadership and public policy. He tossed out some possible topics, including questioning whether the U.S. still leads the world in terms of addressing various public policy issues. ("We are in some areas, but not in others," he said.)
On Friday the Batten students, divided into four groups, will begin a semester-long practicum focusing on local housing issues. Each group will meet with several local housing stakeholders, including the Piedmont Housing Alliance, Albemarle Housing Improvement Program, and housing officials from Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
The housing practicum, along with a requirement that students do summer internships, are examples of the school's focus on practical application of knowledge, Harding said.
Batten is unique among public policy schools, Harding said, in its combination of four uncommon emphases: examining leadership and developing leadership skills; experiential learning; broader interdisciplinary approaches to public policy, including history, ethics and law, as well as politics and economics; and looking at public policy from a global perspective.
"I think that together, these reflect the interests and commitments of the founder of our university and the founder of our school," Harding said. "Thomas Jefferson was committed to the idea of useful knowledge, useful science. He believed, uniquely for his day, that politics should be part of the curriculum."
Harding also cited a quote from the school's founding benefactor, retired media executive Frank Batten Sr.: "Never has there been a greater need for the University's most important product: enlightened and ethical leaders who leave the Grounds prepared for public life – in their communities, in their professions, in the world at large."
Batten students will build on what they've learned in the liberal arts tradition, including writing and speaking clearly, and foster those skills in ways that will prepare them to become public policy professionals, Harding said. They will focus less on 50-minute lectures and 30-page term papers, instead learning to distill public policy recommendations into brief PowerPoint presentations or two-minute "elevator speeches" to a busy government official.
"For the first times in your lives, you're writing for people who know less about the subject than you do," he said. "That's a fundamental change."
Ultimately, Batten students will learn what he called the essence of public policy: Identifying interests that should be promoted, and then both understanding the history of an issue and predicting future events and trends.
Students will grapple both with specific public policy issues, like transportation and education, and with even bigger questions, Harding explained. "Even more important is the debate over not just what to do, but how to do it, and who should do it.
"The broader question, surfacing for the first time in a long time, especially in the United States: What is the proper role of government in our society? What would be too little? What is too laissez-faire? And conversely, what is too much? At what point does the government hand begin to stifle and over-control and over-regulate?
"No matter what we choose, does our political system work effectively? Do we have governance characterized by too little public interest and too much special interest? Do we have proper checks and balances on the operation of government, so that neither the executive branch nor the legislature can act impulsively, without being forced to reconsider and rethink? Or is that basically a way of saying that we are crippled by gridlock and unable to make decisions except in the most dire crisis situations? What is the proper allocation of power among the different levels of government: local, county, state, federal and international?"
For the first time in his lifetime, Harding said, all of those questions are on the table.