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Inside the 2024 Ford School of Public Policy Dean's Symposium at UM

Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Dean of the Ford School of Public Policy and director of the U of M’s Center for Racial Justice,
University of Michigan
Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Dean of the Ford School of Public Policy and director of the U of M’s Center for Racial Justice,


Ford School of Public Policy

Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes

Ford School of Public Policy 2024 Dean's Symposium


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. The University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy will host its Dean's Symposium on Thursday and Friday of this week. It's going to feature a series of panel discussions and lectures. The issue of artificial intelligence will be addressed by technology visionary Alondra Nelson. And Cecilia Munoz--she'll bring her expertise on domestic policy to the lectern. The symposium will also bring a much anticipated appearance and address from noted voting rights activist Stacey Abrams. So, what does the Ford School and the University of Michigan want the leaders of tomorrow to take away from the event? Well, who better to talk with about that than the host? Doctor Celeste Watkins-Hayes is the Joan and Sanford Weill Dean of Public Policy at the Ford School and director of the U of M Center for Racial Justice. Thank you so much for making time for us on such a busy week.

Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes: Thank you for having me on the show. Truly appreciate it.

David Fair: I know you are just finishing up your first academic year as dean. I imagine that you had to spend a good portion of the year putting this symposium together with your team.

Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes: Well, we have a wonderful team that is really excited to put this event on. We wanted to convene an event that brings together our Ford School experts with leading thinkers from many of my past career stops from my time at Spelman College when I was a student and a good friend of Stacey Abrams and a co-student leader to my time at Harvard as a graduate student and then to my time on the faculty for many years at Northwestern. So, we're bringing together some people from my past networks, but we're also bringing together some policy leaders, some people who are friends to the Ford School, and have been so instrumental in helping our students understand some of the key issues of the day.

David Fair: It sounds as though this is a symposium that will have your signature all over it. You're not only a decorated academic, but a noted and respected author. You've written any number of articles and research papers. Your first book was titled "The New Welfare Bureaucrats: Entanglements of Race, Class, and Policy Reform." The second was "Remaking a Life: How Women Living with HIV/AIDS Confront Inequality." Did the research that you had to put into writing those books also inform the manner in which you wanted to approach and present the 2024 Dean's Symposium?

Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes: Very much so. Much of my training and previous work is in the area of social policy. So, we are so excited that Cecilia Munoz is going to open that conversation and open the symposium. She's going to talk about how we think about a policy agenda that supports families and communities in a variety of areas, from education to health to workforce development, etc. And we'll have a panel that will follow that, where some of our top experts who focus on these issues will address that. So, that really made sense to start off with something that is very near and dear to my research area. But one of the things that I'm so excited about this symposium are all the different ways we're bringing some of the newer conversations to the forefront. We're thinking about AI and technology policy. We'll have a fireside chat with Shobita Parthasarathy, one of our outstanding faculty members, and she'll be in conversation with Alondra Nelson, who was the inaugural deputy director of Biden's White House Office on Science and Technology Policy. We're also going to be thinking about international issues and international policy. We'll have a panel on how we think about democracy around the world. And we really couldn't talk about policy agenda without talking about climate and climate sustainability and the environment. And then, we round out with a conversation around racial justice, bringing it back to topics that are very close to my area of research and the work that I've done in the two books that you've talked about that really are works that are at the intersection of social policy and the study of race and class and gender studies.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And we're talking with Doctor Celeste Watkins-Hayes. She is dean of the Ford School at the University of Michigan and is bringing to life the 2024 Dean's Symposium on Thursday and Friday of this week. Let's talk about the students--those that are being educated at the Ford School. What do you hope to add to students' foundational understanding of public policy with the subjects you've just described?

Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes: That's a great question. What I think is important to know is that we can think about policy education as a three-legged stool, and that's really what we try to reinforce at the Ford School. It's what we teach at the Ford School. And it's also really coming to life through this symposium. And the three legs of that stool are policy analysis, policy communication and policy leadership. So first, with respect to policy analysis, how do you use evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, to understand the effectiveness of policies? What works? What doesn't work? What are the different ways in which it benefits communities? What are the unintended consequences? So, we really teach our students to use lay terms: how to call balls and strikes in the policy debate, in terms of what's effective and what's not, using data and evidence. The second piece of the three-legged stool is policy communication. It's one thing to be able to do the analysis, to know what policies work and what policies don't work, but you've also got to be able to communicate that, both in your speech, but also in your written communication, so that you can reach a number of different audiences to be able to be as inclusive and as possible in the policy conversation, from people who are very, very technical in their understanding of policy to people who just want to know what is it going to mean for my family and my experience. So, we really teach students how to be effective policy communicators. The third piece of the three-legged stool that we teach at the Ford School is around policy leadership. So, how do you bring the analysis and the communication skills to bear to drive an agenda forward? How do you think about bringing values and ethics into the leadership that you're offering? How do you think about being an advocate, whether you're an advocate for policy and advocate for a set of issues facing a particular community, or you're just an advocate for the value of solid and well thought-out public policy. How do we train our students to be leaders in that space? So, we're really excited that when you look at the Dean's Symposium agenda, these are people who are at the forefront of using policy analysis, policy communication and policy leadership to drive the conversation forward in positive ways.

David Fair: Once again, our conversation with the dean of the U of M's Ford School of Public Policy, Doctor Celeste Watkins-Hayes, continues on 89 one WEMU. Outside of the academic and literary realm, you were a founding steering member of the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums. You also served four years on the board of directors for the Detroit Institute of Arts. I harken back to a quote I remember from the movie "Dead Poets Society." The Robin Williams character tells his students, "Medicine, law, business, engineering: these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love: these are what we stay alive for." I'm curious how you feel infusing an arts perspective in the manner in which public policy is taught, developed, and implemented works at the Ford School.

Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes: Well, this really hearkens back to my liberal arts education at Spelman College and a real recognition that the liberal arts and all of its forms, whether we're talking about the scientific fields or whether we're talking about the arts and humanities, all have a critical role to play in how we understand the world and how we understand ourselves. So, yes, I like to analyze data and, execute high quality social science research. But I also appreciate the very powerful role that artists play in driving the conversation forward, including the policy conversation. Some of the ways in which public opinion has been shaped and public understanding has been shaped around issues of education, issues of criminal justice reform, issues of climate, etc. have to do with something that someone saw in a film or on a work of art or they heard in a song. I really like the idea of coming into a policy school with all of that kind of holistic understanding that I bring to it, because it helps with the piece around policy communication, recognizing that there's real abilities for our students to be able to use the arts in their policy work, but also to appreciate art as something that we see as a sign of a robust and thriving ecosystem in a robust and thriving democracy.

David Fair: In life, we learn from each other, and learning is a lifelong endeavor. Have you found in your first year as dean that you're learning from the students and the people we hope are going to be our future leaders?

Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes: Oh, absolutely! I learn from the students every day. There is a way in which the questions that they ask through what they want to put at the forefront of the agenda. We really get inspired. We get ideas. We get new frameworks for how we do our work. And we also see a long kind of historical thread. We are named for President Gerald R Ford, who was a student at the University of Michigan, understanding that there are things that have changed drastically in the course of the life of the university. But there are things that stay the same, and we hear it from our students: college affordability, the ability to think about how do you use an education to serve the greater good--those things are timeless. And one of the things that we're trying to work and learn from our students is the issues may be timeless, but how do we create new and creative solutions to confront long-standing issues? And then, how do we confront things that are just coming to the forefront, like AI and education that our students are really helping us think through, how does education need to change with the boom and what we're seeing in the area of AI?

David Fair: I thank you for making time for us. I really appreciate you doing so in such a busy week.

Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes: Oh, thank you so much for your interest, and I encourage your listeners to check us out on livestream! And the sessions will be recorded as well. So, thank you so much for your interest. And we're very, very excited! And Go Blue!

David Fair: That is Doctor Celeste Watkins-Hayes. She is the Joan and Sanford Weill Dean of Public Policy at the Ford School. She joined us today in advance of the 2024 Dean's Symposium. And for a detailed listing and more information, pay a visit to our website at wemu.org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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