UVA’s Cooper Center Integrating Into the Karsh Institute of Democracy

March 8, 2023
An aerial look down at the oculus in top of the Rotunda dome room

(Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Two years ago, the Patrick County Board of Supervisors wanted a local government “checkup” of sorts. How can the infrastructure be improved? What about economic redevelopment and broadband? How can the county better promote tourism?

Enter the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.

Experts at the Cooper Center’s Virginia Institute of Government helped Patrick County leaders pinpoint action items and measurable goals in areas including emergency services, tourism, recreation, quality of life, water, and the opioid epidemic.  

This consulting work is invaluable to small, rural localities like Patrick County, which are often financially stressed with limited, overworked staffs.

Known for its research and practical work benefitting the commonwealth and local governments, the Cooper Center soon will become an even more important part of UVA’s growing focus on strengthening democracy at home and abroad.

University leaders announced that the Cooper Center will integrate into UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy in July.

“The Cooper Center has an outstanding record of supporting regional and local governance across the Commonwealth,” said Melody Barnes, executive director of the Karsh Institute. “Integrating the Cooper Center into the Karsh Institute will allow us to build national research and programming models based on the Cooper Center’s proven work fostering good governance, leadership, and resilience in Virginia.” 

Portrait of Melody Barnes
Executive Director Melody Barnes said the UVA Karsh Institute of Democracy will build on proven research and programming practices of the Cooper Center to expand them to national audiences. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

This boots-on-the-ground work to support democracy through public service is what the Cooper Center has done in Virginia since 1931, when it was founded to help localities cope with the effects of the Great Depression.

“The faculty and staff at the Cooper Center have built a strong reputation on providing applied research and leadership development services that support good governance and informed policy decisions,” said interim Executive Director Michael Phillips. “We work daily to reimagine public service as democracy in action.”  

The Cooper Center works in three broad areas: applied research, leadership development, and local government support and engagement. 

This work is something that many universities are, or should be, providing for local governments in their states, said Charles Hartgrove, director of the Virginia Institute of Government. As it did for Patrick County, the institute assists in strengthening governance and developing dynamic leaders through on-site consulting, via its “Ask VIG” helpline, and by sourcing the expertise of UVA faculty and staff.

“Anytime a university can provide this type of resource, it’s of great help to not just small, rural communities but also suburban and urban areas,” said Hartgrove, who will be presenting on the importance of VIG’s work at a conference for local government leaders in May in Louisville, Kentucky, titled “Local Democracy May Be as Close as Your Nearest University.” 

The Cooper Center also houses the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, which enjoys a storied reputation in Richmond and beyond. Since 1994, Sorensen has offered premier programs for those who want to engage in effective public leadership and serve the Commonwealth in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Sorensen works with not just experienced leaders but also mid-career “emerging” leaders and high school students, always with a focus on ethics in public service, the power of bipartisanship, and the study of public policy.

A New Focus To Fight Macular Degeneration, to be great and good in all we do
A New Focus To Fight Macular Degeneration, to be great and good in all we do

While VIG and Sorensen help governmental and public sector leaders develop, another aspect of the Cooper Center’s work is to provide them with unbiased applied research and data analysis. This summer, three Cooper Center teams will come together as the “Research Collaborative” under one managing director, to maximize the breadth of their research and policy studies and to better serve their clients: the Center for Survey Research, the Center for Economic and Policy Studies, and the Demographic Research Group.

The Center for Survey Research has a proven track record of eliciting useful feedback from the Commonwealth’s citizenry – from blue-collar workers to public school students, depending on the goals of the client. “I see us as a bridge,” said CSR Director Kara Fitzgibbon. “We’re able to connect the policymakers with their communities so they can make better decisions.” 

A recent example is the 2022 Culpeper Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which was designed to understand the extent to which risky behaviors and experiences of seventh- through twelfth-graders attending Culpeper County Public Schools have changed since 2017 (when the last such survey was conducted). The data was analyzed late last year, and the school district is using it to secure grants for curricula and programs.  

The Center for Economic and Policy Studies provides Virginia policymakers with important data on critical topics such as economic development, solar energy and flood resilience. Recent clients include the Virginia Employment Commission, which asked for a non-partisan study on paid family medical leave. Similarly, the Cooper Center has produced more than 20 studies for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission on the efficacy of its tax incentive programs.

The Demographics Research Group is responsible for population estimates and projections that are a powerful tool for determining taxes and funding in Virginia. It is charged with bringing “population data to life,” using census and other demographic data to conduct policy-oriented analysis. For example, in January, it released findings that Virginia’s exurbs are booming again, more than a decade after the Great Recession had slowed growth in the area, which can influence health care, education and transportation.

“The Weldon Cooper Center makes real the promise that democracy is delivered through everyday actions and decisions by public servants and policy makers across the commonwealth,” said UVA Provost Ian Baucom. “This is a tangible expression of the center’s role as an experiential, practical arm of the Karsh Institute of Democracy.”

Media Contact

Erin Tor

Director of Communications and Marketing Karsh Institute of Democracy