‘Only downsizing’: Sanford founding director Joel Fleishman steps down from teaching, reflects on time at Duke

<p>Joel Fleishman. Courtesy of Duke Law.</p>

Joel Fleishman. Courtesy of Duke Law.

On April 19, Joel Fleishman, professor of law and public policy and the founding director of the Sanford School of Public Policy, walked into a classroom to teach the same course he had been teaching for over 50 years — LAW 585, Philanthropy, Voluntarism and Not-For-Profit Law and Management. Much to his surprise, he was greeted by the smiling faces of over 100 of his former students on Zoom.

At 89 years old, this class session was Fleishman’s last, and the occasion did not go unnoticed by his students. 

Each Zoom attendee paid tribute to Fleishman’s teaching. Many thanked him for his contributions to their careers or the connections he helped them forge. Others praised Fleishman for his detailed feedback on their papers, quick to comment on his hatred of split infinitives.  

“It was very touching,” Fleishman said, adding that he was “grinning and stifling tears.” 

Fleishman greatly impacted many of his students, but he also left a lasting legacy at the University. The first director of the Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs, now the Sanford School of Public Policy, Fleishman made significant contributions to Duke’s prominence in the field of public policy.

Founding the Sanford School of Public Policy

Fleishman began his career as an assistant for the Walter E. Meyer Research Institute of Law at Yale University in 1960, but soon returned to North Carolina to serve as a legal assistant to then-Governor Terry Sanford. In 1970, Sanford became the president of Duke — and made sure to bring Fleishman along with him. 

In his inaugural presidential address, Sanford emphasized the desire to create a school “to train young people, either to go in government, or to run for public office or to get involved in politics one way or the other,” according to Fleishman. 

Sanford then asked Fleishman, who had returned to Yale, to help run a new public policy program at Duke. Fleishman said that he initially agreed to just help outline the program, hoping to stay at Yale. But Sanford persisted — and eventually, Fleishman came to Duke in 1971 and has stayed ever since. 

With the help of significant fundraising efforts led by Fleishman, the Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs started offering undergraduate courses in 1972 and opened its doors to graduate students in 1974.

The rest was history. Duke ranked sixth in the 2022-2023 edition of U.S. News and World Report’s public policy program rankings. In fall 2022, public policy was undergraduate students' third most popular major

Fleishman believes that the secret to the Sanford School’s success was the “quality of teaching.” 

“We deliberately decided teaching would be an equal component [to research] when figuring out who we were going to recruit, and who we were going to promote,” he said. 

Chairing of a capital campaign

Fleishman served as director of the Institute until 1983, when he “reluctantly” left the position to chair a capital campaign for the arts and sciences. The administration believed he would be fit for the role given his success in raising money for the Institute. He went on to raise about $500 million for the University, according to Fleishman.

“Many of the buildings around campus [and the] endowment money that arts and sciences lives off of up to this day, it was raised by him,” said Fleishman’s longtime assistant Cassie Lewis. “Those names on those buildings — that’s because he asked that person to give that money.”

Teaching and connecting with students

While Fleishman has worn many hats at Duke, teaching has always been one of his top priorities. Beyond teaching his course on nonprofits and philanthropy every year since 1965, Fleishman has also taught courses on campaign finance reform and legal ethics at the law school.

Throughout his teaching career, Fleishman always graded papers himself. He took great care in reviewing his students’ work, earning a reputation among them for being a stickler for grammar and syntax. “I'm known for having a fit when I see a split infinitive,” he quipped. 

Fleishman also worked to connect with his students outside the classroom, regularly inviting them to group dinners. In June 2021, a red brick house across from East Campus set to become the home of Chabad at Duke University Undergrads was renamed the Fleishman House, commemorating Fleishman’s efforts to host Jewish students in his home during the holidays. 

“[Fleishman] has a network of people,” said senior Lily Annenberg. “He always invites them to dinners and is always so open to introducing people.” 

“I went to this Passover dinner he invited me to, and it was one of my favorite nights at Duke ever,” Annenberg added. While Annenberg did not take Fleishman’s courses, Fleishman taught her father and has maintained a strong relationship with her family. 

Stepping down from teaching

At 89 years old, Fleishman is finally taking a step back from teaching. 

“I decided that I didn't really feel comfortable anymore,” he said. “For an 89-year-old, teaching students who are between 17 and 22 … I thought they should have teachers more of their generation.”

The last class celebrations were secretly organized by Lewis, who reached out to former students and other people in Fleishman’s network via email. 

“I know if I can gather people in a room for [Fleishman], they're going to say amazing and heartfelt things because he's just an amazing individual, and he pours himself into people because he sees the potential in them,” Lewis said. 

Fleishman was touched by the tribute. “He had a tear coming down his face, which I’ve never seen before,” Lewis said. 

What comes next?

Fleishman emphasized that he is not retiring, “only downsizing.” 

While he won’t be formally teaching a course, Fleishman will continue running the Foundation Impact Research Group seminars, in which he brings in presidents of foundations or nonprofit organizations to speak about strategic choice-making and impact measurement in their fields. 

Meanwhile, Fleishman will continue to play a role in Duke’s fundraising efforts, working to restructure grants and donations from individuals and foundations to “work more closely” in the future. 

Now that he has more time on his hands, Fleishman also hopes to write another book — the fourth in his series about nonprofits and foundations. The new book will address and refute criticisms of philanthropic giving that think it is motivated by wanting to earn the admiration of other people.

“Maybe, the people were doing good because it was good, not because it was something that they wanted to be known for doing,” Fleishman said.

After a long life of University leadership and student mentorship, Fleishman has concise words of advice for Duke students. 

“The ideal situation is to do something that you care deeply about,” he said. “And when you're choosing someone to work for, find someone who is good at mentoring younger people working with them.”

Mia Penner | Editor-At-Large

Mia Penner is a Trinity sophomore and an editor-at-large of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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