Dean Laura Bloomberg: Humphrey School is ‘Up for the Challenge’ of Addressing World Issues

State of the School message: The keys are critical thinking and hope for the future
February 7, 2020
Dean Laura Bloomberg standing behind a podium in the Humphrey School auditorium
Humphrey School Dean Laura Bloomberg delivers her 2020 'State of the School' message.
Photo: Keith Hovis

At a time when America remains more divided than ever along political, economic, racial, and ethnic lines; and when the promise of new technologies also brings concerns about privacy and democracy, the role of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs is to bring hope, and a healthy dose of critical thinking, as it prepares the next generation of leaders to bring about a better future. 

That was the message from Humphrey School Dean Laura Bloomberg to an audience of faculty, staff, students, and supporters in her annual State of the School address on Wednesday.

She examined the “paradox of public affairs scholarship,” noting for example, that while the country is marking the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, it is still seeing voter suppression activities today. 

“We can also point to the dramatic development of artificial intelligence systems, which are advancing innovations and problem solving. But that also raises concerns about AI systems as a threat to democracy,” she said. 

Given these paradoxes, how does a school of public affairs advance the public good and train new leaders? 

“In the face of these challenges, it would be really easy to be cynical about what it means to be in a school of public affairs. But I reject that cynicism,” Bloomberg said. Quoting author Zadie Smith, she added, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is simply naive.”

“We have no time for cynicism when we think about what’s happening in our politics, with climate change, when people are losing faith and confidence in our public institutions,” she said. “We don’t have time for naive hope, either. We need critical thinking. We need to prepare scholars and future practitioners who will think clear-eyed and critically about the issues we face. But we can’t do that without having hope as well.

"That is the heart of our public affairs paradox. So it is with that audacious belief that we try to live into our mission.” 

Bloomberg outlined how the School is fulfilling its mission in four broad priorities, highlighting the work of faculty, students, and researchers in each area.

Expand Pathways to Public Service Leadership 

“Gone are the days when we should expect students to take a straight path to the Humphrey School directly after earning an undergraduate degree. More and more, we see people who are limited by financial or family circumstances, or they wait until later in their careers to pursue a degree, or they choose to earn a professional certificate.”

• The Policy Fellows program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It has prepared a significant number of people who have leadership roles across this region to have a deeper understanding of public policy and public affairs.

• This summer the Center for Integrative Leadership and the Humphrey School will host a group from the Mandela Washington Fellows program for mid-career leaders from sub-Saharan Africa. It will be the sixth year of hosting. 

Expand and Amplify our Global Reach and Impact

• Attracting international students. In 2019, 9 percent of Humphrey School students came from countries outside the United States. That’s down slightly from the previous year, due in part to more challenges for students to gain access to the US. “We are a stronger school community when we have students here from all over the world,” Bloomberg said. 

• The School has reinvigorated the University’s Engaging Intergovernmental Organizations (EIO) program, an interdisciplinary effort led by the Humphrey School and the College of Veterinary Medicine that focuses on pressing global health issues such as antimicrobial resistance, food safety, zoonotic diseases, and international trade. “If you’ve heard the term ‘coronavirus’ in recent days, you know that what happens in animal wildlife, and in animal domesticated life, and in human health and in public policy are deeply and inextricably linked.”

• The School has established a long-term partnership with the Peace Research Institute Oslo. This multi-year collaborative research project, Security and Conflict Prevention in Fragile States, will kick off in March with a workshop in Oslo, engaging PRIO researchers along with several Humphrey School faculty members. The project is funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and builds on prior faculty collaborations with PRIO.

Promote Hope, Opportunity, and Equity in a Changing America and a Changing World

“If we’re not about this, I don’t know why we exist. This goes to the heart of what we do," Bloomberg said. "Everything we do should be about making the world a better place for the people who inhabit it.”    

• The Humphrey School will host a national Social Equity Leadership Conference this summer, focusing on the ways we are learning about social equity across many grand challenges such as climate change, food security, the way we deliver health and human services, or the way we develop employment support. 

• The School will co-host a similar social equity conference on an international scale in 2021, in Cape Town, South Africa, along with the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape. 

Advance Institutions of Democracy and Civic Life

“In the wake of ballot issues in the Iowa Democratic caucuses earlier this week, we’re thinking about what we do to strengthen people’s faith in public institutions, to make public institutions worthy of that confidence. We believe the Humphrey School has something to offer in this space,” Bloomberg said.  

• The School’s Certificate in Election Administration program is growing, with 62 people enrolled in classes this spring semester. Course work covers issues such as elections and cybersecurity, equitable and accessible polling places, and current election laws. 

Bloomberg also highlighted the work of several Humphrey School students who are researching topics from sustainable energy to public housing access to human rights in Mexico. “These students—all of our students—are the people who will power our efforts to advance hope, opportunity and equity; who will amplify democracy and civic life in our country and globally.”

“My job, and our job collectively as faculty and staff and supporters of the Humphrey School, is to enable the vision of a new future for our policy institutions, our planning institutions, the work of public life, so that somebody can help let the sunlight in in a new and creative way,” said Bloomberg in closing. “That’s what gives me hope. That’s what gives me a great sense of optimism—that when our students are equipped with the skills to be critical thinkers, and the passion to be hopeful because they have an audacious belief in their own potential, they can bravely say, ‘I have a new vision for what’s possible here.’ And that’s what makes us such a great school to be part of.

“The State of the Humphrey School is strong. We are challenged by the things that are happening in the world, and I think we’re up for the challenge.”