DC Service Transforms Faculty Research and Teaching

Professors say they return to Duke with a new view of the world -- and themselves

Faculty members say working in DC gives them opportunities for public service as well as a chance to rethink their research and teaching.
Faculty members say working in DC gives them opportunities for public service as well as a chance to rethink their research and teaching.

Peter Feaver spent years tracking terrorists and other threats as a member of the White House National Security Council. He mastered the Washington art of writing policy memos for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and other top officials.

Now it's his students at Duke University who are writing action-oriented policy memos, working in teams instead of on individual research papers. "My experience fundamentally changed the kinds of assignments I give," Feaver says. "It's rare in Washington to write something on your own that goes to the president unedited. I've brought that same approach to my students. It's much more work for them than an individual paper, and they complain, but alumni come back and tell me they're glad they did it."

Chelsea Goldstein is among them. A 2010 graduate who now analyzes international issues for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in Washington, she says taking a class with Feaver "was one of the best things that I did at Duke. His connections with the political world in DC benefited me immensely and continue to help me in my career today. He made foreign policy come alive for me."

"All of the experiences he shared with me encouraged me to think that, if I was innovative, developed useful expertise and worked hard enough, I, too, could break into the ranks of those privileged enough to contribute," says another of Feaver's former students, who asked to be unnamed because of her current intelligence work with the White House and others.

Feaver is among dozens of Duke faculty members who have worked in federal agencies, on congressional committees and elsewhere in the nation's capital. Some leave Duke for several years while others serve on short-term advisory committees of the National Research Council and other groups. Most say the experience transforms how they pursue their research, teaching and careers after they return to campus.

"The policy world makes us better academics," says Bruce Jentleson, a Duke public policy professor who recently served as a senior adviser in the State Department. Working directly with public officials -- in his case, on the Middle East and other issues -- "not only provides insights to take back to the classroom but also gives you a little more 'street cred' with your students."

Eric Toone taught at Duke for nearly 20 years before receiving an unexpected call from a former colleague asking whether he might help launch a Department of Energy program to promote innovative technologies. "It sounded like an incredible opportunity to do something different and I jumped at it," he said. Two weeks later he was living in a Washington hotel and working around the clock to award more than $400 million in federal stimulus funds through the new ARPA-E program.

"It changed absolutely everything about me and how I view the world," says Toone, a chemist who has been at the federal program since October 2009 and now heads it. "You develop a different world view living someplace else. You don't see Duke as your world anymore; you see Duke as a part of the world."

"The structure, the pace and the level of administrative bureaucracy are so different than in academia," agrees Linwood Pendleton of Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, who is serving part-time as the chief economist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "At a university, you can afford to be a perfectionist. Congress doesn't give you that kind of time. You may have just two weeks to get the best answer you can. You need to provide the right science at the right level at the right time to help policy makers with their jobs."

Pendleton brings that perspective back to his colleagues and students at Duke, where he directs a program on ocean and coastal policy. "Not only do I tell stories about what I'm facing in Washington, but I'm able to use my work at NOAA to guide the research we're doing at the Nicholas Institute."

Duke economist Michelle Connolly testifies before Congress in her role as the chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission.

Some of the stories Duke faculty share are about political gamesmanship and bureaucratic inertia in Washington. Duke economist Michelle Connolly, who served two stints as chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), found it "very hard to move the culture of entrenchment -- not only in Congress, but also within the agencies. Once you have a regulation in place, it's almost impossible to get rid of it, regardless of which administration it is."

Connolly, who had previously "talked about policy, theorized about policy, but never been on the inside," said working in Washington gave her "a much clearer sense of how they make the sausage." But she also felt like she was serving the public interest and becoming more involved in analyzing issues such as how auctions might be used to allocate the public spectrum for cell phones and wireless devices. "Now I talk about auctions in my class and three students wrote about them in their honors theses for Leslie Marx and me," says Connolly, who created a course on the economics of telecommunications policy after returning to Duke.

Marx, an economics professor at the Fuqua School of Business, held the same FCC position prior to Connolly and agrees with her that it "shifted my research in the direction of trying to analyze, and hopefully solve, current problems. It was a unique opportunity to see competition policy and market design in practice, and it's helped me since then to emphasize the economic foundations driving policy-making in Washington."

Richard Newell, an energy and environmental economist at the Nicholas School of the Environment who returned to campus last year after heading the U.S. Energy Information Administration, says he encourages students "to apply their knowledge and tools to the kinds of questions and tasks one sees in the working world." Newell, who now leads a campus-wide energy initiative, has "come to realize the importance of engaging with decision makers in business and government, to both learn from them the real issues they face and to communicate directly to them ideas I might have for meeting our multiple energy challenges."

Bruce Jentleson calls the Washington experience a "hypothesis-testing mechanism" for Duke scholars interested in public policy, saying "there's definitely a place for theory, but you also need a way to answer practical questions." Students benefit not only in the classroom but also after they leave Duke. Justin Fairfax, a 2000 graduate and former university trustee who is now an assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia, says, "Professor Jentleson played a key role in launching my career in public service by helping me obtain my first post-graduation job interview. Throughout my career, he has been a tremendous mentor, adviser and friend."

The university as a whole benefits, too. When Jentleson gave media interviews during his recent trips to South Africa, Abu Dhabi and Australia, Duke was mentioned every time.

Feaver notes "on the margins, this is one place Duke can invest scarce dollars with the promise of a good return. It isn't the only way Duke can fulfill its mission of ‘knowledge in service to society,' but it's one way." During the past two years, Feaver has brought to Duke former Secretary of State Condoleeeza Rice, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, author Bob Woodward, political analyst Karl Rove and other Washington luminaries, all of whom spoke to the campus community and met privately with Feaver's students.

Feaver says he treasures the experiences he had in Washington but still considers himself a Duke faculty member first and foremost. "I definitely got put on every committee when I came back," he says with a laugh. "I had no get-out-of-committee card for several years."

"I'd be hard-pressed to give up what I have at Duke," Pendleton agrees. "Life at a college campus is more free-wheeling. You can engage in public debate. If you're a chief economist, you have to be much more measured in what you say."

Below: Linwood Pendleton of Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, currently the chief economist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, speaks at a conference on the coastal environment and the economy. Photo by Dubinsky Photography for the Blue Frontier Campaign.