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A New Kind of Leader

Batten School takes hands-on approach to develop ‘challengers of the status quo’

The offices on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., are eerily quiet on this Friday in April. The deadline for a deal that would dismantle a budget stalemate and avert a federal government shutdown is fast approaching, and 15 University of Virginia graduate students are getting a rare view into the inner workings of government.

“You could feel the tension,” says Anna Mohan (Col ’11, Batten ’12). “All the congressmen were sort of milling about, and you could tell they didn’t really know what to do.”

The students, all degree candidates in UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, were there on a field trip for their “Congress 101: Leadership Strategies” class. Immersion into the “real world” is an integral part of the school’s philosophy, and they originally were scheduled to meet with U.S. senators and representatives. Instead of cramped congressional offices, they found themselves with an expansive view of the Mall as they stood in the conference room of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., while the congressman’s chief of staff, between phone calls, fielded their questions and explained what was going on. “The whole country was watching what was happening in the Capitol Building,” says Gerald Warburg, the class’ professor. “And we were in the Capitol Building.”

A deal would be reached later that day, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, would announce it that night. But for Mohan, the trip was illuminating in an unexpected way. “When it came down to a situation where the government was really in a bind, it was just a bunch of people in a room trying to figure things out,” she says. “It occurred to me just how powerful leadership is.”

Gerald Warburg

Savvy, skills and experience

The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, established in 2007 and the first new school to be created at UVA since the 1950s, was formed at the intersection of two trends—a public policy field largely stuck in the Great Society model of the 1960s, and a country beset by political brinkmanship, shutdown threats and partisan acrimony. “We’re forward-looking,” says Warburg, professor of public policy. “We’re facing the problems of the 21st century. We’re teaching people to be change agents, challengers of the status quo dedicated to making their communities better.”

The Batten School is anticipating launching a bachelor of arts degree in public policy and leadership this fall. The degree program has been approved by the UVA Board of Visitors and is pending approval by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Up to 50 students are expected to enroll in the first class of the program, which will eventually expand to 75 students.

So the Batten School was created with an ambitious goal: to create a new kind of leader. The Batten School offers the policy-analysis education found at typical public policy schools, but two key factors set the school apart—developing the tools students will need to effectively advocate their positions, combined with insight into how effective leadership works.

Batten courses on leadership draw on cutting-edge research into persuasion, motivation and team building. It’s all about “psychological savvy, analytical skills, experience,” according to Benjamin Converse. He’s an assistant professor of public policy and psychology and teaches a class on the psychology of leadership as well as one on negotiation strategies. In both, he helps students build intuition about the underlying processes of leadership.

“It’s not necessarily about standing on a soapbox and giving a rousing speech,” says Converse. “Rather, how can you set the environment so you influence people in one way or another?”

Students examine case studies and psychology theory to determine what about a situation might affect someone’s behavior. He gives the example of a poorly performing General Motors plant. As an experiment, the employees, who up until that point were focused only on their one particular task on the assembly line, were shown the whole operation of building an automobile. “They gained information about the entire process, and people started to feel more ownership about the project,” says Converse. “It provided meaning to their jobs.” The plant went from being one of the worst performing to one of the best in the country. “It was a simple situational kind of change.”

In Converse’s “Strategies and Processes of Negotiations” class, participants learn to navigate the subtleties of negotiation through simulation. The students pair up, and each receives background information on a particular role. One is a buyer, for instance, and one is a seller. Or one plays the part of a union representative, the other of management. The students then go through the process of learning how to hold their own, to ask for more and to learn where they can compromise, as well as what biases may be affecting the proceedings.

“Lots of people are squeamish,” says Converse. “This can help them get over that. Students learn how to be more comfortable with the situation, control their emotions and think systematically.”

This experience, along with feedback from the negotiator across the table in the simulation, allows participants to parse what worked and what fell short. “You realize that not all negotiations are the same,” says Converse. “Sometimes it pays to be tough, and sometimes it destroys value if you’re not willing to make trade-offs.”

They cover conflict resolution and joint problem solving. Converse talks about the “myth of the fixed pie,” where the mentality of one side might be to take as much as they want or can. However, there are ways, asserts Converse, to build the value of the deal so there’s more to go around for everyone. “It takes a sophisticated negotiator,” he says, “to recognize what’s possible.”

Inspire and educate

“The thing I focus on is training the next generation of civic leaders, and that could mean many different things,” says Christine Mahoney, assistant professor of public policy and politics. She touches on one of the main goals of the Batten School—to prepare students to lead from any sector, public or private.

Benjamin Converse (left); Christine Mahoney (right)
We don’t necessarily see ourselves as training public officials,” says Harry Harding, dean of the Batten School and professor of public policy and politics. “The mission is to inspire and educate men and women to be active civic leaders in their communities, large or small—from the neighborhood to the world as a whole. We are very explicitly agnostic on the question of where we are training students to work.”

Mahoney teaches a number of classes at the Batten School, from “Global Advocacy and Activism” to “Leadership in the Public Arena.” She instills the principle that to be effective agents of change, students must learn how to navigate the evolving landscape of public policy and find innovative approaches to the complex issues of our time. “There are many scholars writing books about environmental and economic collapse,” she says. “It seems like a ripe time to come up with better solutions.”

Students study examples of pioneering approaches to old problems, including those in which public and private organizations work together. “There are so many large problems we need to tackle, that government-only solutions are no longer sufficient,” she says. “I emphasize how all policy making requires a partnership among the government, non-profits and for-profits. In my seminar, students are teaming up with some of the most innovative antipoverty initiatives in Charlottesville.”

Bank On, for instance, is a partner seeking to reduce the number of people without bank accounts, who are therefore susceptible to loan sharks and the exorbitant fees charged by some check-cashing and payday loan businesses. Local governments provide community outreach while banks relax minimum balance requirements and offer small loans at reasonable interest rates, all creating an easier entry point for citizens seeking to start accounts and build financial stability.

The Orange Dot project, started in Charlottesville, is another Batten School partner exemplifying collaboration of public and private organizations. It seeks to reduce the number of families living near the poverty line by creating hubs that connect underrepresented local businesses to economic giants like the University of Virginia, and reaching out to potential workers from lower-income families. “It’s exciting for students to see that there are ways around problems that seem intractable,” says Mahoney.

Getting hands dirty

Warburg invokes a Latin phrase—non satis scire—in his leadership strategies class. It translates to “It’s not enough to know.” It’s not enough, in other words, to simply have an education. One of the fundamental goals of the Batten School is to give the students what Jefferson called “useful knowledge,” hands-on experience they can use later in their own work.

“We teach our students how to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty, crack open the problems and come up with feasible solutions,” says Eric Patashnik (Col ’87), associate dean and professor of public policy and politics, who teaches classes on leadership in the public arena and on policy analysis.

“Policy analysis is all about solving problems,” he says. “It’s about figuring out why an organization is underperforming or why social objectives are not being met or how we can do better as a society.”

Students put their knowledge into practice in a major undertaking during the second year of the two-year program called the Applied Policy Project, or A.P.P. It’s an individual endeavor, where candidates seek out real-world organizations and offer to work as consultants. They analyze a challenge that an organization or community is facing and offer solutions. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity for the students,” says Patashnik. “It really prepares them for future leadership careers.”

“It was very useful,” says Chloe Bowser (Col ’10, Batten ’11), who now works as a legislative aide for Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. She set up her project through an internship at the State Department the previous summer, and she ended up working with someone at the Pakistan desk on expanding economic engagement between that country and the U.S.

“Being able to do that deeply analytical work,” she says, “you realize it’s not enough to know the history of the Middle East. You have to be able to write about it in the correct way and think about it in the correct way.”

Bowser, who came to the school because of her interest in foreign policy, found herself taking a different track than the one she expected after taking a class on Congress. “When I went to an interview [in D.C.], I knew the lingo, knew what they were looking for and what I was going to have to know,” she says. “That one class completely changed my path and expectations and career.”

Max West (Batten ’13) says he’s looking forward to the A.P.P. “I’m interested in how policy gets made and implemented. The idea that we’re going to be involved in that process in a meaningful way is very exciting to me.”

Interested in relations between the U.S. and China after graduating from Yale and working in the People’s Republic of China, West feels like he’s come to the right place to learn how to tackle the complex issues facing the two countries.

“There are so many global issues that in our generation are going to hinge on how the U.S. and China handle them,” he says. “Most of us came here because we’re interested in really fundamental problems.”

Shades and subtleties

It’s a cold and rainy Tuesday night, and the classroom is lively with chatter. Students in Converse’s “Strategies and Processes of Negotiation” class have just come back from a simulated negotiation in which they were paired off, with one person taking the role of a buyer, one of a seller. Now it’s time for the debriefing, where they reveal how it all unfolded.

“Who feels like they did pretty well?” asks Converse. Most students raise their hands.

They then discuss the parameters of what makes a good deal. They talk about the “reservation price”—the price a negotiator will not cross and the area within which a deal can be reached—as well as what justifications students used for throwing out a certain number.

“Now that we’ve done some analysis and you know what you could have received, who’s still feeling good about their deal?” Fewer students raise their hands.

On a different night, Warburg is assigning roles in his Congress 101 class. He gives House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to a young woman, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to someone else, President Barack Obama to a young man in the back. The scenario involves a congressional conference committee that must pass a spending package by midnight. Warburg asks West, playing the part of Boehner, what his main agenda items would be.

“It would be to reclaim our position as defenders of the American people on the issue of lower tax rates,” he says. “I would want the payroll tax extended for a year, the Bush tax cuts extended for as long as feasible. Ultimately, I’m concerned with maintaining my own position.”

The student playing House Majority Leader Cantor says, “I think I’m going to try to represent some of the freshman Republicans close to the Tea Party. I think I want the Speaker to feel those pressures.”

Warburg then calls on others for their comments. “Remember,” he says, “if those of you playing Democrats criticize the ‘do-nothing’ Congress, you’re also criticizing Pelosi [and Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid.” It’s one of many of the shades and subtleties he brings up throughout the class, encouraging students to be aware of all the dynamics at play.

“We’re not training you to sit back and be quiet. This is a class to teach you how to be advocates, to understand the power characteristics of Congress,” says Warburg, listing tactical options on the chalkboard while the students take notes.

“In 100 days,” he says, “you should be able to go up against the most formidable opponents, and sometimes prevail.”