Center for Community Engagement

Policymaking in the classroom

Professors of Political Science Ashley Burns and Kerry Ratigan
June 2014—story and audio by Jenny Morgan, photo by Sandra Costello


The first time assistant professor of political science Ashley Burns was asked to make a public policy decision, she was fresh out of college and interning for the Charlotte Housing Authority in North Carolina. The CEO wanted Burns to weigh in on a problem, and she dutifully outlined each option and all of the possible outcomes. “He looked at me like I was crazy,” she remembers. “He didn’t want a 20-page paper. He wanted me to tell him what to do.”

With any luck, students who take Burns’ fall 2014 public policy-focused course, Politics of Place, won’t suffer the same fate.

This past spring semester, Burns and assistant professor of political science Kerry Ratigan participated in the Curriculum Bridging Project (CBP) with the aim of bringing public policy into the liberal arts classroom. A project of the Five College Public Policy Initiative, the CBP is a weekly seminar for faculty to create or redesign courses that incorporate public policy in the classroom. Burns took the opportunity to redesign a previous course into a “problem-centric” investigation of poverty and housing. “I want my students to feel like policymakers,” Burns says. “I want them to be able to take the skills that they’ve gotten in political science and really put them into practice.”

Burns, who last year completed her PhD in public policy from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, has spent years looking at public housing as a way to understand social stratification, particularly in the American south. “A lot of what drives my research is a motivation to better understand the lives of the poor,” she says. Through field research in Durham, North Carolina, Burns has investigated the impact of HOPE VI, a neighborhood revitalization program of HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Designed to improve distressed communities, HOPE VI aspires to deconcentrate poverty by creating mixed-income housing developments. Burns spent years researching a neighborhood where a public housing community was completely demolished, and then redeveloped. “If you tear down public housing, what happens? If you build mixed-income affordable housing, how does that change the lived experience of what it’s like to be poor in that neighborhood?”

To answer these questions, Burns conducted interviews with residents and community leaders to examine conditions before the public housing was torn down, and after the mixed-income housing was built in its place. Burns found mixed results. “Just the physical change of the façade makes people feel more positive about the community in general,” she says. But as for whether or not mixed-income housing improves social mobility of the poor, Burns’ research doesn’t give any indication that it does. “The idea behind mixed income housing,” Burns explains, “is an assumption that if assisted housing residents live near relatively more affluent neighbors, those people will be good role models for the poor. However, such gains would rely on interaction and relationships, and I don’t find such outcomes in my research.”

Assistant professor of political science Kerry Ratigan has dedicated a comparable amount of time to understanding social policy, too—just on the other side of the globe. Ratigan, who completed her PhD in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has spent the past decade traveling between the United States and China.

On a trip many years ago, she noticed something that puzzled her. “If you need medical care, you have to show up to the hospital with a big wad of cash,” she explains. “It’s not a privatized system, but this idea that the health care and social welfare systems are weak in a country that is ostensibly communist is something that interested me.” She decided to tackle this research question for her dissertation—in part because it seemed no one else was asking these questions. “Very few people are looking at both the politics and policy of social policy in China,” she says. “It struck me that this is some place where I could really contribute.”

Ratigan spent the next several years in China conducting field research to understand both the perception and experience of health care in rural China. In partnership with local researchers, she conducted interviews, focus groups, and a survey of over a thousand villagers in 160 different villages. The big takeaway? “When you’re thinking about social policy in China, you can’t think about one country that has one model. You need to think about a bunch of different regions that take different approaches.” Ratigan found that coastal regions with export-focused economies “tend to view social policy as a way to further develop their workforce,” she says, adding that these regions invest more in healthcare and education. “By contrast, parts of China that are not so export-dependent take what some scholars call a more protective approach: investing in pensions, housing benefits, poverty alleviation. They prioritize those programs over health and education.”

In the spring 2015 semester, Ratigan will teach Social Policy in China, a brand new upper-level seminar on contemporary social issues in China. She’s interested in getting students doing up close research projects on “very specific, focused areas of social policy—health, education, welfare, or environmental policy,” she says. Ratigan is excited to bring political science and public policy into conversation with each other. “I think in a liberal arts environment, we have the intellectual luxury of engaging in these very sometimes philosophical, conceptual debates, and unpacking everything and making a critique of everything,” she says. “But policy makers want to know, ‘Well, what do you want us to do about this tomorrow?’”

Listen below as professors Ragitan and Burns share stories of their own research and why they're excited to bring policy into the classroom.