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Alternative Futures
By Gerry Warburg

The National Intelligence Council last year briefed Batten students in Garrett Hall on the results of an intriguing exercise. The NIC’s Global Trends 2030 report advances U.S. government planning by providing agencies with a synthesis of the intelligence community’s best estimates. The report anticipates the world of 2030—including the rise of Asia, the expansion of megacities and accelerating climate-driven policy challenges—while tasking policymakers to plan accordingly.

 Applying the GT 2030 rubric, what might the future hold for higher education and, more specifically, for schools of leadership and public policy? To continue building a school that aspires to be both a research powerhouse and a skills-based professional program with excellent teaching, what next steps should Batten leaders take in the years ahead? Following are several ideas culled from my recent experiences teaching Batten undergraduate and MPP elective courses, while serving on the school’s administrative team.

What will the future look like?

One of the great fallacies of advance planning is the notion that trends move in straight lines, that “the future will look like the past, only more so.” To grasp the fact that there is tumult ahead in the sphere of public higher education, one need only weigh the recent warning of Professor Clayton Christensen. The Harvard Business School scholar predicts that, by 2030, one-half of American colleges will be bankrupt.

Or consider the meteoric rise of online education and specifically MOOCs (massive open online courses). What impact will their growth trajectory have on programs like the Batten MPP? Our MPP program is specifically modeled on U.Va.’s world-renowned residential education, offering intense engagement with professors and public policy advocates in small seminars.

Frank Batten insisted that leadership in a democracy must come from all spheres.


Whither the field of “leadership studies”? This relatively new academic discipline dissects leadership skills and techniques while moving beyond the stale nature-versus-nurture debate over whether leaders are “born” or “built.”

The Batten School has extraordinary advantages over its competition, advantages that permit us to innovate freely as we make substantial departures from traditional paths. For starters, we were not created in the 1960s. That means we are not captives of the dated notion that public policy will be shaped primarily by executive branch bureaucrats micro-managing domestic policy agencies. From the outset, Batten leaders assumed that major challenges of the 21st century would be transnational in scope and require international cooperation.

The bias of ’60s-think—that assistant secretaries at places like HUD and DOE would be the primary drivers of change—has been explicitly rejected in our design. Frank Batten insisted that leadership in a democracy must come from all spheres and that public policy programs should include undergraduates, imparting a leadership expectation. Batten School design has thus incorporated a novel public policy and leadership BA program. Skills-based course offerings on negotiation and coalition-building anticipate student future careers as private sector leaders or managers of nongovernmental organizations, not simply in public service. And curriculum design prepares students to be change agents in local, state, federal and international arenas.

How do you teach leadership?

Thomas Jefferson was convinced that a public liberal arts university would be essential to train those who would govern the young republic. Two centuries later, the challenge remains: how to equip individuals to be leaders, not merely dutiful citizens. The Batten School curriculum complements the traditional approach of quantitative analysis and data sets with rigorous course offerings on policy history, communications and the changing context of leadership.

The academic literature on leadership studies is far from mature. The Batten School has made a substantial commitment to helping develop it, recruiting a core of research scholars from diverse fields, including psychology, history and economics. These cohorts work alongside political scientists to create new texts and case studies, including the emerging work of professors Craig Volden and Jeff Jenkins on leadership best practices. We have integrated skills-based presentations from communications disciplines and are teaching issue framing, lobbying and rapid-response techniques—all while utilizing promising social-media tools. Batten curriculum also incorporates extensive team-building exercises and emphasizes experiential learning.

A look ahead: Batten 2030

A $120 million endowment and a choice location near the heart of the Academical Village at one of the world’s great public universities provide Batten a rock-solid foundation. In what direction might this entrepreneurial start-up grow? Here are a few developments a Batten School visitor in 2030 might conceivably find:


    Batten has no pre-existing academic silos to blow up, no ivory tower to fortify. The school began with an expectation of interdisciplinary collaboration, an assumption of teamwork and broad engagement in contemporary policy debates. The days when professional schools might insulate students from public policy controversies are over. Expect future Batten School leaders to join budding engineers, doctors, lawyers and urban planners at the forefront of this movement, with faculty research and student work routinely exploring policy alternatives based on empirical analysis.

    At the University of Virginia today, several programs explore best practices for future leaders. Different iterations are offered from the Schools of Law, Business, Medicine, Nursing and Architecture, as well as the Center for Politics, the Sorensen Institute and the Miller Center. Future requirements demand greater collaboration. Thus, a 2030 visitor may well find a “Policy Commons” near the heart of Grounds, one effectively promoting collaborative programs on leadership and public policy across disciplinary bounds.


    Tuition-funders and donor/investors will invariably insist upon greater program integration. Taxpayer representatives will also likely push a 12-month academic cycle to better utilize U.Va.’s limited classroom and laboratory space. To have publicly funded facilities overstuffed September-to-April then relatively vacant May-August cannot be justified. The students understand the need for dramatic changes. One illustration: the outstanding student-run policy journal at Batten, Virginia Policy Review. Shortly after VPR was launched, editors gathered on Grounds the editors of major student-led policy journals from across the country, from Cambridge to Palo Alto. Where are VPR editors going next? They are expanding their scope this fall with a new initiative to draw policy papers from Darden, Law, Medicine and Engineering. They seek studies that incorporate best practices and attack looming challenges, while incorporating the perspectives of a host of professional disciplines, not solely public administration.


    Mid-career MPP programs are confronting sustained market disruption. In a tight job environment, where the student debt burden has grown unmanageable, there is enormous opportunity cost in walking away from a secure job for two full years. Look for Batten’s popular accelerated MPP model of 3+2 years to grow in favor, both with state legislators and parents. Expect also that pressures from prospective post-graduate MPP students will erode the boundaries of the traditional 24-month MPP program. Watch for immersive structured fieldwork. Anticipate challenges to exclusively residential approaches. Mixed delivery methods—including cautious use of some online content, flipped classrooms and distance learning—may supplement field studies and on-Grounds seminars.


So, what if you returned to Grounds in 2030 and asked, “Where is the leadership and public policy school?” Batten School would still be in the middle of the action. As the University realizes its commitment to become an international research powerhouse, Batten faculty will be contributing in many ways. We’ll still be primarily a residential program, featuring small professor-led seminars, blended with case studies and experiential learning. We’ll routinely engage policymakers from NGOs and the corporate world, while actively engaging in the public policy debates of the day.

In other words, we’ll still be at the cutting edge, trying to fulfill Mr. Jefferson’s bold vision. 

GERRY WARBURG is Assistant Dean for External Affairs and a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy. He teaches courses at the Batten School on Congress, U.S. foreign policy and advocacy strategies.


Data-Driven Change