Skip to main content

Everything is Connected

One of the stories in this issue of Virginia Magazine describes the complex societal problems we are facing in our country and around the world as the human population surpasses seven billion. Another story describes the emergence of the University’s newest school, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and its work to prepare a new type of policy leader through rigorous training in analysis, advocacy and leadership. Read the stories back to back, and you will understand why the Batten School is essential: our country and our world need a new generation of leaders who are effectively trained to tackle the complex policy issues of our time. Isolationism and insularity are no longer possible in a world that author Thomas Friedman famously deemed flat. Population changes in other parts of the planet have a direct effect on our nation because of the realities of our global era: the interconnectedness of economies, environmental effects of human activity around the world, limited natural resources, and realignments of political power that stem from global population growth and decline. As a result of all these interconnections, American policy leaders cannot afford to concentrate on America alone. In most facets of analysis, advocacy and policy making, our leaders need to operate with global awareness.

The University of Virginia was founded 43 years after the founding of the American Republic, with the expressed purpose of training civic leaders to uphold our hard-won freedom and to advance the interests of a young nation. Before the first classes opened here, Thomas Jefferson said this would be “an institution on which the fortunes of our country may depend.” We know, however, that today the fortunes of our country depend, to a large degree, on our ability to prepare students for global purposes. After graduation, they will work on diverse teams that include people of various nationalities and ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They will work for multi-national corporations and other organizations whose interests and activities are not limited to domestic concerns.

Because of this reality, we are expanding our capacity to prepare citizen-leaders for global action in various ways throughout the University, and perhaps most visibly through the Batten School. Dean Harry Harding and our Batten School faculty members are looking anew at how to train policy leaders, and, in the process, they are reinventing public policy training to meet 21st-century needs.

In spite of the interconnectedness of nations in this global age, effective leadership remains highly contextual. A policy that works in one area of the world may not work as well in another area with different economic and political circumstances. The Batten School is creating transnational leaders who understand the importance of context, who know how to translate and adapt ideas and policies across boundaries and borders. These students are being trained for analysis, but also for advocacy. They learn how to challenge orthodoxies and how to become change agents when change is necessary.

The Batten School is distinctive among schools of public policy in this country because of its focus on citizen leadership. Whereas many public policy schools train students for bureaucratic careers in government, the Batten School philosophy asserts that policy leadership is needed everywhere: in government, of course, but also in non-governmental organizations; in nonprofits; in the fields of law, health, education, business and other disciplines; and in public life, where great civic leaders such as the late Frank Batten Sr., have left such indelible marks.

Policy leadership training is more than an intellectual exercise in the Batten School. Students focus on the fundamentals of how leadership works, and how decisive actions can lead to tangible results. Leadership is a recurring theme in the curriculum. Many faculty members in the Batten School are drawn from other University schools, so the students benefit from multidisciplinary perspectives. They learn how psychology, economics, and other disciplines contribute to effective decision making. Batten School faculty members are deeply engaged in policy debates in a range of areas, including refugee displacement, health care cost control, the impact of No Child Left Behind legislation, and other issues. Students are able to hear the latest thoughts on these and other important issues.

While the Batten School is singularly focused on leadership training, leadership concepts are integrated into programs in all of our schools, in the Miller Center of Public Affairs, and in other corners of the University. The Batten School’s programs are integrated with other schools’ programs. This is perhaps most evident in dual-degree programs offered with Law, Darden, Architecture, Medicine and the Curry School of Education. These dual programs make it possible for students to complete two programs in less time than would be required if each were completed separately, allowing the students to put their new knowledge and skills into action sooner. As we look to diminishing state resources combined with increasing demands for degrees, we continue to expand our ability to speed up degree completion. One example: Batten’s Accelerated BA/MPP program allows students to complete both a bachelor’s and a master of public policy degree in five years, rather than the usual six.

Timing is everything, and the Batten School’s emergence could not be better timed. In this election year, we are experiencing a national loss of confidence in public leaders because of their divisiveness, dissension, and name-calling. In these hyper-partisan times, we need ethical leaders who can address the most important issues without fearing compromise. As a University founded with a great national purpose, we have an obligation to be engaged in the national dialogue and to prepare our students to lead. The needs are great. The opportunities are greater.