Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy and professor of public policy, psychology and neuroscience joined the University last July. He is an expert on obesity and hopes to better connect academia with the fast-moving realities of the policy world. The Chronicle's Patricia Spears spoke to Brownell about how his first few months as dean have been.
The Chronicle: You became dean in July of this year, and mentioned that you would like to connect Duke students and faculty more strongly with Washington policymakers. What other goals did you have?
Kelly Brownell: I’ve really been here one full semester, and just part of another. I’ve been very impressed with what I found. The Sanford School is a very strong institution within the University. The morale of the faculty is high, we have very vibrant teaching programs. The undergraduate and master’s degrees and Ph.D. programs seem to be thriving. We have faculty who are dedicated to working on some of the world’s most important social problems, so it would be hard not to like that kind of environment.
As I found out more about the work that our faculty does, I found a broad ranging set of topic interests, ranging from climate change to education policy to poverty to terrorism. So it’s a fascinating place from that point of view. There are some themes that have started to emerge through the school that I found very impressive, and I think we have a very, very bright future ahead of us. We're doing strategic planning now, so probably in April or May, a strategic plan will emerge that will focus our efforts in the next set of upcoming years. And that will help guide us with our curriculum, it will help guide us with hiring decisions...and will help us deploy our resources in the most effective way possible. Overall, my goal was to learn the culture of Sanford and the University overall, which I think I’ve done well on. Get to know the people as well as I can, and to see how we can do as much good in the world as we can. It sounds like a broad and even trite aim, to try to create more good in the world, but I think a school of pubic policy is particularly well positioned to do just that. My hope is that we will have excellent training for our students and whatever walk of life they go into, that they will be thoroughly trained intellectually and they will be in a position to contribute to the political process in an informed way, and that the work of our faculty and our students have as much impact as possible into the real world.
TC: What challenges have you come across?
KB: One is sort of a challenge of riches in a way. Duke takes interdisciplinary work seriously, and there’s a very open-minded attitude around the University about doing new things. So that opens up many possible doors of things we might do, different parts of the University we might collaborate with. One challenge is getting to know all these opportunities and deciding which ones to take advantage of. Within the collaborative interdisciplinary nature of Duke, we are especially big believers of those approaches, so we have the highest percentage of faculty of any university with joint appointments with some other part of the university. So that interdisciplinary approach to the world is second nature to us. When we hire faculty we could do joint appointments with the law school, or with arts and sciences, or with global health, you know, whoever. There are just so many possibilities, and we need to narrow those down, and focus ourselves as we go forward. There are just so many interesting possibilities and it’s quite exciting.
TC: What has been your greatest achievement this semester?
KB: Just as I was becoming dean, the school was blessed with a gift from David Rubenstein, of $10 million. I worked with David and my predecessor, the dean, to carve out some of that gift for what we’re calling "innovation and impact funding." So our idea is that there are novel things that may not typically occur in universities that might be important for us to consider doing, to create more impact in the world. And we now have some money to support innovative, ground-breaking projects that could take us to a new level. I find that very exciting. And it opens the door to good possibilities.
TC: How did your experience at Yale play into your work here?
KB: At Yale, I ran a policy institute on obesity and food policy. It was called the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and I was deeply immersed in policy issues. I thought a lot in that position of how to harness the scholarship that occurs in the university in order to create social change. The Yale experience was very helpful for me in that respect. But the work I was doing was mainly in psychology and public health and food policy. Coming here has really broadened my horizons a great deal about public policy in general, because we have faculty working on so many things, which has been very helpful to me. The Yale experience was good, the Duke experience has been especially good for me, because of the broad interests of my faculty.
TC: Where do you see Sanford moving in the future?
KB: Sanford is rich with opportunity because of the high quality of our students and faculty. There are many chances for us to become even greater, in terms of having an impact on the policy world if we can strengthen the links between the University and the policymakers.
TC: Do you see more interaction with policymakers in Washington?
KB: Not only Washington, but globally. U.S. public policy is important for us to consider, but also, local things, Durham and North Carolina, and then things that are going on around the world are all really important to us. If you’re going to understand how public policies get shaped, then you need to know what happens at every level of government. Even before I came, there was a high level of engagement of the school with policymakers. If you just follow our speaker series, you’ll see some amazing people that come to campus and interact with us. Our faculty members are very out and engaged with public policy makers at all levels of government, and I’m hoping that we night do even more of that. I have a firm belief that the work of our faculty and the work that our students do is very important, and I want the world to know more about it.
TC: Is there anything else on the horizon for Sanford that you want the world to know about?
KB: The strategic planning process—it doesn’t sound that exciting, but it turns out to be quite exciting, because it gives us an opportunity to peer into the future, to make our best guesses about where the world is going and decide how we can contribute in the most constructive way. I think that’s very exciting. I’ve also spent a lot of time meeting alums of our program, and Duke alums in general, and I’ve found them a very excited, engaged, and loyal group. I think there are many opportunities for us to connect with them in order to help shape the future of the school. You may or may not know this, but every school has an external board of advisers, called the board of visitors. We have a remarkably talented group of people on that board... It’s a very impressive group of people that lend us many good ideas, help support us financially, and help us think about the future of the school. So if you think about how talented the students are, how talented our faculty are and how loyal our alumni base is. There’s an awful lot to build from.