Policy Studies: A Good Fit for Grinnell

November 23, 2009


Some areas of academic concentration fit a particular college or university better than others. Such may be the case with Grinnell College’s newest area of academic concentration, policy studies, which seems to fit particularly well at Grinnell.

The new concentration will provide students with the tools to analyze policymaking processes and implementation, and to evaluate policy decisions and outcomes from multiple perspectives. To Bill Ferguson ’75, professor of economics and one of the main proponents of the policy studies concentration, the implications of the new program extend beyond the confines of traditional academia. In a sense, it is a way to guide the energy behind the social commitment fostered among so many Grinnell students.

“Grinnell’s tradition of social activism was an aspect that really influenced those who worked on bringing policy studies to Grinnell,” Ferguson says. “We hoped that a course of study such as this would offer students the guidance and skills needed to carry out their social passion.”

Ferguson recalls the intensity with which the Grinnell community supported the establishment of the new concentration. “Students and alums were both very enthusiastic about the prospects of incorporating policy studies into the academic programs of Grinnell,” he says. “Within the faculty, we found widespread support as well. We obviously expected the social studies division to be fervent advocates for a policy studies concentration, but the degree to which the humanities and, especially, the science divisions supported the idea produced a collaborative effort that is rare to see when taking on a project such as this. The concentration seemed to fit Grinnell very well.”

Students are equally enthusiastic. Nick Fitz ’11, a third-year who is majoring in philosophy, says, “I think policy studies is a perfect concentration for a lot of different majors, given its interdisciplinary nature. The concentration is well structured and allows for intellectual freedom on the part of the students and the professors. The professors have created a great mix of lecture and discussion, and as a result I think the students learn a great deal.”

And with so many interdisciplinary elements to the curriculum, perhaps this widespread enthusiasm is justified. Essentially the policy studies concentration has seven steps. Students must take a Foundations of Policy Analysis course, one empirical methods course chosen from among several disciplines, one course that examines policy making from a humanistic context, one that takes on a scientific context, and one course on the institutional context of policymaking.

At this point in their studies, students should have a good enough foundation in policy analysis to make real-world applications. The final two steps will be one course in applied policy analysis and lastly a research project. “By the time students complete the curriculum,” Ferguson says, “they will have a firm understanding of policy analysis and its real-world application.”

“As a philosophy major I approach the material from a unique perspective,” says Fitz, “yet I hope to gain a concrete understanding of the real policy process and its implications.”

Fitz also points out how the policy studies curriculum emphasizes discussion and engagement among students from various disciplines. “I have come to really value how interested and engaged all my classmate are — our class has become close. I very much see policy studies shaping and guiding students’ passion for social justice. For example, a seminar on climate change has fueled a passion in that specific issue in me and many of my classmates.”

So while the policy studies concentration is not just for political wonks and student activists, it is an option that might appeal to a wide mix of Grinnell students.

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