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Watkins-Hayes recommended new dean of Ford School

June 2, 2023

Celeste M. Watkins-Hayes, interim dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and a scholar known for her research on the organizational implementation of social policy and societal safety nets, has been recommended as the school’s next Joan and Sanford Weill Dean.

Her appointment was recommended by Laurie McCauley, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, and is pending Board of Regents approval at its June 15 meeting. Watkins-Hayes’ renewable five-year term would run through June 30, 2028.

As interim dean, Watkins-Hayes implemented a vision for sustained growth, drove key curricular initiatives and advanced the Ford School’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, McCauley said.

"In her extensive experience as an academic leader, Dr. Watkins-Hayes has shown a penchant for breaking barriers and creating new structures to address major societal challenges," she said. "As a visionary leader with a focus on growth, momentum, justice and elegant public policy solutions, Dr. Watkins-Hayes is sure to bring further distinction to a school known for those same qualities."

"I am honored and elated to lead the Ford School as its next Dean," said Watkins-Hayes. "The Ford School has a deep and illustrious history of policy impact, stellar teaching, and service to our communities; it is a privilege to continue to shepherd this work."

Watkins-Hayes began her academic career in 2003 at Northwestern University, where she was a professor of sociology and African American studies and Faculty Fellow in its Institute for Policy Research. She went on to serve in various administrative positions before joining U-M in 2020.

In August 2021, Watkins-Hayes became associate dean for academic affairs for the Ford School. She was named interim dean the following July. She also is a University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor, Jean E. Fairfax Collegiate Professor of Public Policy and professor of public policy in the Ford School, and professor of sociology in LSA.

Watkins-Hayes has been internationally recognized for her research at the intersection of inequality, public policy and institutions, with a special focus on HIV/AIDS, poverty, and race, class and gender studies.

As interim dean, she implemented a vision for sustained growth and momentum called FORD (Forward-looking strategy; Operational excellence; Restorative work; and Diversity, equity and inclusion) Forward.

She also led a review of the Master of Public Affairs degree program, hired a diverse group of faculty and postdoctoral fellows, transformed the course planning and management process, and created a pipeline between the Ford School and minority-serving institutions through a new program called ASPIRE (Applied Social Policy Internship and Research Experience).

She is the founding director of the Center for Racial Justice, an interdisciplinary hub at the Ford School that supports bold projects targeting racial inequity and intersectional injustice.

I am honored and elated to lead the Ford School as its next Dean. The Ford School has a deep and illustrious history of policy impact, stellar teaching, and service to our communities; it is a privilege to continue to shepherd this work."

Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Joan and Sanford Weill Dean of Public Policy

Watkins-Hayes’ first leadership role in higher education was as the student member of the Board of Trustees of Spelman College from 1993-96.  In 2009, she was invited to return to the Spelman board, where she held various leadership roles and was vice chair from 2014-19. She also led the search process for the college’s 10th president and wrote an influential article on presidential searches for Trusteeship Magazine.

Watkins-Hayes has published two books, "The New Welfare Bureaucrats: Entanglements of Race, Class, and Policy Reform" in 2009 and "Remaking a Life: How Women Living with HIV/AIDS Confront Inequality" in 2019. "Remaking a Life" won seven awards, including her discipline’s highest book honor, the Distinguished Scholarly Book Award from the American Sociological Association, in 2021.

Her third book, "Speechifying: The Words and Legacy of Johnnetta Betsch Cole," with Johnnetta B. Cole and Erica Williams, is set to be released in August.

Watkins-Hayes joined Northwestern University in 2003 as an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies. She became an associate professor in 2010 and a full professor in 2017.  She later received the E. LeRoy Hall Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest teaching award bestowed by the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Concurrent with her appointment as a faculty member, she had multiple administrative roles, including director of undergraduate studies in the Department of African American Studies from 2009-10 and 2016-17, vice chair and director of graduate studies from 2010-11, and chair of the Department of African American Studies from 2011-13. In addition, she was appointed the associate vice president for research in the Office for Research in 2018.  

Watkins-Hayes received a Bachelor of Arts degree, summa cum laude, in an independent interdisciplinary major of sociology, economics and education from Spelman College in 1996. She received a Master of Arts degree in sociology in 2000 and a Ph.D. in 2003 from Harvard University.

Watkins-Hayes is a member of the American Sociological Association, the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, Association of Black Sociologists, International AIDS Society, and the National Women’s Studies Association. She was elected in 2022 to the Board of Trustees of the Russell Sage Foundation and to the Sociological Research Association in 2021.


Story written by Ann Zaniewski, U-M Public Affairs, and published in the University Record.