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Judith Kelley portrait
Judith Kelley Photo by Chris Hildreth

Judith Kelley

Dean, Sanford School of Public Policy

By JUDITH KELLEY, Dean, Sanford School of Public Policy

The sun is rising in rural Mississippi. Dr. Braveen Ragunanthan’12 is preparing for a busy day as a pediatrician at the Delta Health Center, in a community that has some of the nation’s highest rates of childhood poverty, childhood obesity and infant mortality – especially among people of color.

Braveen wrote to tell me he answered the call to serve at the rural health center during the height of COVID-19, which was already wreaking havoc on our health system nationwide. He credits his public policy studies training at the Sanford School of Public Policy as a key factor in his bold decision. “As my dear Sanford mentor Tony Brown taught me: Public policy at its core is really about solving social problems,” Braveen told me. With his interdisciplinary training in medicine, public health and public policy, Braveen’s spirit is the Sanford spirit – that of service to society.

More than 50 years ago, former Duke President and our founder Terry Sanford shared a vision for a better world, one in which a premed student can study public policy and become a pediatrician in rural Mississippi as a recipient of the National Health Service Corps scholarship, for example.

When Sanford took office in 1970, he came with a bold vision to create interdisciplinary public leadership training. In his first month of office, he and professor Joel Fleishman, as founding director, developed a plan for a new institute for policy sciences and public affairs. In less than a year, this ambitious duo had public policy in motion – one of the first such undergraduate programs in the country.

The vision for what would become the Sanford School profoundly impacted Duke. Sanford faculty pioneered a culture of collaborative, interdisciplinary, problem-oriented research to tackle the thorniest questions in society. They led students like Braveen outside the classroom and into the world through experiential, applied learning.

Because of Sanford, a student majoring in computer science can work on an interdisciplinary team to combat fake news through automated fact checking in the Duke Reporters Lab. Because of Sanford, a political science major can explore his interests in tech policy and, as a fellow of Sanford’s tech policy lab, testify before Congress on the dangers of data brokers to our online privacy. Because of Sanford, the Duke Global Health Institute has an interdisciplinary team working on health inequalities around the world and locally in ways that are even changing how Duke delivers health care to diverse populations. Because of Sanford, interdisciplinary teams in our Center for Child and Family Policy have pioneered programs that have improved child well-being in Durham, North Carolina, and across the nation. Because of Sanford, Duke is preparing students for lives of leadership, civic engagement and public service.

Every day as dean of Sanford, I hear more examples of Terry Sanford’s outrageous ambition coming true. The Sanford origin story has carried into our present and guides our future for the school, but also for our entire university. In tangible ways, Sanford has fostered a culture of applied interdisciplinary collaboration and truly been a differentiator for Duke.

Sanford’s vision came true because of our people, especially our alumni and friends who have fueled the school with support. For example, Mitch and Linda Hart, Kathy Lieb ’69, P’03 and others invested in the Hart Leadership Program at Sanford. As the nation’s first endowed undergraduate leadership program, it became a pioneering incubator for experiential learning at Duke. The Hart Leadership Program was crucial in creating Duke Engage. Its service opportunity learning program inspired programs across the country to take students out of the classroom and into the communities to solve challenges.

Today we face many societal challenges – in fact, crises. Climate change, health issues, global and social inequalities, national security struggles, technology concerns and threats to democracy call for comprehensive approaches to find solutions. As Duke drives toward the next century, the people of Sanford, including our alums around the world, are essential partners who enable broader conversation about the steps society needs to take to address these issues.

As Braveen knows every day when he walks into his clinic, every societal challenge we face has a crucial connection to policy. Sanford tackles policy challenges with our characteristic superpowers: experiential learning, interdisciplinary applied research, and our focus on people. These are not just Sanford strengths; these are among Duke’s most prominent superpowers. Sanford’s future is part of Duke’s future to make the world a better place. With more than 10,000 alumni change-makers like Braveen Ragunanthan, Sanford is committed to improving lives and communities.