At the first “Wake to Fritz” breakfast, Fritz Mayer arrived ready to cook. 

Wanting to create a casual atmosphere to discuss the political issues that students were concerned about, he brought pots, pans, eggs and pancake mix to actually make breakfast, said Joel Luther, program coordinator for POLIS. That was the only time Mayer ever cooked at one of his biweekly WTF breakfasts, but the experience was emblematic of who he is as a professor at Duke.

“It is really a huge privilege to have a professor who cares so deeply about his students and wants to further their interests,” Hannah Beiderwieden, Trinity ‘17, wrote in an email.

Frederick “Fritz” Mayer, professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, is leaving Duke after this academic year to become the dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. In his 30-year tenure, he has taught 20 courses, founded and directed the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service (POLIS) and created the Program on Global Policy and Governance in Geneva.

From D.C. to Duke

Growing up in Atlanta, Mayer traces his career back to his greatest role models—his father and grandfather. His father was a professor of civil engineering at Georgia Technical Institute and his grandfather was the managing director for Philadelphia.

Mayer inherited his fascination with policy from his grandfather and pursued it. He worked in Washington D.C. at a nonprofit and at C-SPAN before deciding to get a master’s degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

He was working in consulting when the loss of his other role model—his father—caused him to reconsider his priorities. 

"My father died suddenly, and I was in consulting, and it was one of those moments in your life when you ask what you want to do—do I want to do the consulting?” Mayer said. “I had the option to go get a Ph.D. at Harvard in public policy, so I did that, and then I got a job at Duke."

Philip Cook, ITT/Terry Sanford professor emeritus of public policy and chair of Sanford Institute of Public Policy at the time, hired Mayer in 1988. Cook wrote in an email to The Chronicle that he was most impressed by Mayer’s “intellectual breadth and policy engagement.” Not only was he able to teach most of the core classes, Cook wrote, but he was also “exceptionally thoughtful about just what we should be teaching the next generations of students.” 

Re-envisioning politics

Four years ago, Mayer and some of his colleagues were talking about the ugly state of politics and their concern that Duke students weren’t interested enough in public service. Out of that conversation came POLIS.

POLIS, Mayer said, has two main goals: “student engagement” and “problem-solving.” The center hosts speakers, holds conferences and prepares students for policy internships and careers in public service. Mayer stressed that, unlike other political centers at other universities, POLIS directly engages students and faculty in discussing politics. 

Most importantly, Mayer believes that bringing people with opposing viewpoints together can help cure the polarization ailing the U.S. today. He doesn’t think conversation is a “silver bullet” that will magically dampen hyper-partisanship—structural changes, such as fixing gerrymandering, are required too—but it’s a start, he said.

"I do believe that it matters if we get to know each other, and that that makes a difference,” he said. “If you know somebody and you've broken bread with them and you sort of understand them, it's harder to demonize them and makes it more possible to compromise.”

Before Mayer founded POLIS, he was the director of graduate studies for the Sanford School from 2000 to 2009. He developed the Ph.D. program in public policy, which Cook cited as his greatest impact to public policy at Duke.

Mayer also was tasked to “internationalize” public policy as director of graduate studies. So, he thought, where better to establish a summer program than Geneva, Switzerland? Thus, 18 years ago, he scoured Geneva looking for organizations that would accept postgraduate students as interns. He’s been going to Geneva every summer since, growing the program from six to 60 students and exposing them to the international community.

Teaching comes first

Of all his accomplishments, Mayer is most proud of his teaching. He said that a professor’s first obligation is to their students, and he hopes that he will be remembered for his teaching. Cook agreed, writing that his greatest legacy will be in the thousands of students, from undergraduates to Ph.D. students, that he has inspired.

"I've taught just shy of 4,000 students at my time at Duke, more than anyone else in public policy history,” Mayer said. “That's the thing I'm proudest of. At the end of the day I had this old fashioned idea I got from my father that the first job of being a professor is to be a teacher."

One of those 4,000 students was Beiderwieden, who was a research assistant for Mayer and an undergraduate teaching assistant for Public Policy 155. She was most impressed with how he challenged students to think about the assumptions they made when using policy tools.

“Fritz is a captivating professor. He makes you think deeply about challenging issues and supplements his teaching with fascinating personal stories and perspective,” she wrote.

Moving on

Despite the heartache he said he feels leaving Duke, Mayer said he is excited for his new job in Denver. He shared that he will be the “architect” of a new public policy program while helming the school for International Studies. The position affords him a platform to become a more public figure on the issues he cares about, such as the state of world affairs and the global refugee crisis. 

B.J. Rudell, associate director of POLIS, wrote in an email that he will miss Mayer’s humor the most. 

“Fritz is one of the funniest people at Duke,” he wrote. “It’s subtle and pervasive, and it correlates with his glass-half-full approach.”