Ford School of Public Policy celebrating a century of impact

October 27, 2014

Originally published in The University Record

A major milestone is in sight for the faculty, students, alumni and staff of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy: the school will celebrate its 100th anniversary this weekend.

In 1999, U-M named its school of public policy after the 38th president of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, a 1935 U-M graduate.

Even as a student, Ford had been a natural leader. He captained the Wolverines, earned impressive grades, took a stand against racial discrimination, and was active in social and service organizations while holding down several part-time jobs.

After graduation, Ford dedicated himself to public service — first as a moderate Republican congressman from Grand Rapids, later as House minority leader, then as vice president and president in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

But the Ford School predates Gerald Ford. In fact, it was America's first graduate training program in public administration, with origins in the Progressive Era.

Progressive Era-roots

One hundred years ago, the telephone, the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb had been invented, along with air conditioning, airplanes and, in Detroit, the Model T and the world's first assembly line. But while exciting new horizons were opening regularly in science, engineering and industry, social challenges were continuing, unabated.

Citizens wanted safer working conditions, shorter workdays, wages they could live on, and protection against monopolistic business practices. They looked to their elected officials for help, but too many of those officials were poorly trained or corrupt. Calls for reform and government intervention were growing.

It was in this climate that Jesse Reeves, chair of U-M's political science department, proposed to pioneer a brand new type of graduate degree.

Reeves believed that the same kind of educational systems and scientific methods that had driven so much technological advancement could be used by public servants, leading to better and safer cities, industries and schools. It was a visionary idea.

The university recognized that vision, and in 1914, the program was launched. Many other colleges and universities adopted similar models in the years that followed.

With the training they received at U-M, the school's early alumni would go on to do important work in the world.

Charlotte Mary Conover Jones (MMA '27) would coordinate citizenship schools for women in the wake of women's suffrage. Rudolfo Kawi Hidalgo (MMA '27), the son of a rice farmer, would represent his province in the Philippine Legislature. Harold D. Smith (MMA '25) would oversee the U.S. budget from the end of the Great Depression to the launch of the United Nations and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, part of today's World Bank.

Pioneers of a new degree: Master of Public Policy

In the late 1960s, U-M again led a major shift in graduate education for aspiring public servants. Professor John Patrick Crecine (then just 29 years old) and an interdisciplinary group of colleagues pioneered the Master of Public Policy degree, and reshaped the curriculum to take advantage of advances in the social sciences.

The new social science focus emphasized economic and statistical analysis, the political environment of policymaking, and the importance of organizations to the successful implementation of policy. It employed computing technologies to more quickly and accurately assemble and evaluate data.

The shift from "administration" to "policy" was a shift toward focusing on systemic solutions to complex societal challenges. How can we reduce unemployment, and grow our economy, in struggling Rust Belt cities like Detroit and in developing economies around the world?  How can we ensure human rights while preventing threats to national security?

Again, the U-M curriculum became the gold standard approach. Now more than 150 schools in the United States and many others abroad offer degrees in public policy.

An era of growth

Ned Gramlich, a nationally recognized economist and member of the Federal Reserve Board, served several stints as director of the program from the late 1970s to the late '90s. Gramlich led the transition from an institute to a fully-fledged school in 1995, and served as its first dean.

With the ability to hire and grant tenure, the school expanded its already deeply interdisciplinary faculty, nearly all the members of which held joint appointments in economics, political science, sociology, law, business, education, social work, urban planning and other fields.

Rebecca Blank became dean in 1999 and led an era of tremendous growth. Now chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Blank was a catalyst behind the school being named for President Ford. She oversaw the fundraising for and construction of the school's first real home, Joan and Sanford Weill Hall. She helped launch the school's pioneering joint-Ph.D. and undergraduate degrees in 2001 and 2007, respectively.

In 2007, Susan M. Collins was named dean of the Ford School. An international economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Collins' research focuses on economic growth in developed and developing economies.

Collins, who is president of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, has strengthened the international dimensions of the school's work. She's also led major initiatives designed to grow the school's visibility and deepen faculty and student engagement with policy communities in Washington, D.C, and within the state of Michigan.

Today — on the cusp of its second century — the school is known around the world as an elite policy program housed at a world-class university.

Three Ford School faculty members hold the highest appointment at U-M, that of Distinguished University Professor. Thirteen hold named professorships. Others have been recognized — nationally and internationally — for game-changing discoveries, exceptional teaching and mentoring, constructive policy engagement and more.

The Ford School's 3,000 living alumni are tackling some of the world's most pressing, urgent issues. They're managing multimillion-dollar support programs for farmers in Afghanistan. They're crafting market regulations at the Federal Reserve Bank. They're directing successful political campaigns. They're improving health policy in West Africa. And they're leading national land and water conservation efforts for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A year of intellectual and celebratory activities will come to a close Friday and Saturday as the Ford School hosts its Centennial Reunion — honoring the accomplishments of the past and launching the school's next century.

By Erin Spanier and Laura K. Lee

View more pictures and highlights from the school's history.