Public policy studies is consistently one of the most popular majors in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. In light of Kelly Brownell’s appointment as the new dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy, we would like to investigate the success of Duke’s undergraduate public policy curriculum.
Public policy determines our country’s goals, how we prioritize them and how we go about achieving them. It is no surprise then that many Duke students—charged with ambition and concern for how they can best ‘make an impact’—gravitate naturally toward public policy. While the subject matter is a crucial part in enticing students to the major, there are several other reasons for the major’s popularity.
The curriculum is strikingly transparent. The path to the major is clearly structured and relatively prescriptive—it includes five core courses and a compulsory summer internship that counts for credit. Courses at the same level have recommended grading curves, which means students have a good idea of what to expect as they begin a new class. Public policy is taught by both academics and those with real-world experience. The major is often thought of as ‘applied political science,’ and Sanford evidentially places a high value on exposing students to the societal applications of public policy.
The co-curricular components of public policy make it stand out from other majors. The Hart Leadership Program—created to challenge undergraduates to “to practice the art of leadership in public life” through service, fellowship and research—is an excellent complement to the major. Students with other majors also take advantage of it. As the only major with a summer internship as part of its requirements, public policy majors experience the workplace in a way that allows them to synthesize their experiences from their study. Undergraduate career services offered by Sanford does an excellent job in supporting public policy students seeking internships.
Public policy could be criticized as being inappropriately pre-professional within the Trinity College’s liberal arts framework, and some students may consciously use the major as an easier path to industries like finance, avoiding some of the mathematical requirements of the economics major. This is a valid concern: Faculty should take note of an emerging trend toward pre-professionalism and commit to providing a broad liberal arts education to all Trinity students, regardless of whether their majors have obvious practical application. But we believe Sanford is doing just that—requirements like the compulsory public policy internship dissuade ‘fakers’—and we believe the public policy program is a rigorous model of interdisciplinary learning moving into the future.
The success of the public policy major can be attributed in part to its relationship with Sanford, which means it can obtain funding and make use of the school’s programs in a way individual departments in Trinity College cannot. We think the major avoids the temptation to drift away from liberal arts, but it occupies a precise niche. Other departments can learn from public policy, but they should remain vigilant of changes that tailor majors toward the professional world if they do so at the expense of a broad education.
Correction: An earlier version stated that all public policy courses are graded on the same curve.