During the 1990s and the early 2000s, high political instability in Liberia resulted in two civil wars that led to the deaths of over 250,000 people. These civil wars are estimated to have shrunk Liberia’s economic output by 90%, according to The Economist.
After a peace agreement in 2003, however, the political climate in the country significantly improved, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia was democratically elected in 2005.
Steven Radelet, professor of development in the School of Foreign Service, considers his time as an economic adviser to Sirleaf the most significant role he has taken on throughout his career. From early 2006 to 2010, Radelet helped erase 97% of Liberia’s $5 billion national debt by working with international creditors to write off and reschedule the debt, he said in an interview with The Hoya.
In addition to his work for Sirleaf, Radelet believes that his time at the State Department and at the United States Agency for International Development enables him to view development through the lens of both a scholar and a practitioner.
“Those experiences on the ground helped me, first of all, think about the core issues around development and to see them from a very different perspective than would someone — who I think if they spent their entire career in academia,” Radelet said.
Radelet is one example of a Georgetown University professor with policy experience who links professional work to academia to improve the effectiveness of their courses and research. By grounding theoretical concepts in both practical examples and personal anecdotes, these professors are exceptional resources for students interested in solutions-based policymaking regardless of their field.
Bridging the Gap Between Policy and Academia
As an international affairs-oriented school, the SFS curriculum draws upon theory and policy, attracting professors with diverse professional experiences.
Ranked by Foreign Policy Magazine as the fourth-best undergraduate international relations school in the world, the SFS features many professors who integrate policy expertise with academia in their teaching, according to SFS Dean Joel Hellman.
“If you look at the average political science department among strong universities in the country, it’s unusual to see a large [group] of people who play both roles — practice and theory,” Hellman said in an interview with The Hoya. “It’s very much something that is linked to specific schools like our School of Foreign Service or policy schools elsewhere.”
Victor Cha, a professor of government and vice dean for faculty and graduate affairs in the SFS, sees Georgetown as an institution often secluded from the real world that still seeks to bridge the gap between academia and policymaking.
“We are an ivory tower, but we’re not an ivory tower in the bad sense,” Cha said in an interview with The Hoya. “It’s an ivory tower that does have a great deal of appreciation for and seeks to connect the world of scholarship and the world of policy.”
Katherine Marshall, a professor in the SFS and a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, worked at the World Bank for 35 years before coming to Georgetown. Having worked on projects ranging from agricultural development in Africa to social policy governance in East Asia, Marshall uses her World Bank experience to develop policy briefs at the Berkley Center in addition to teaching SFS classes such as “Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs” and “Development and Religious Institutions.”
Marshall concluded her time at the World Bank by researching the links between religion and development, a topic she has continued to concentrate on at Georgetown. Academic institutions and policy-oriented organizations should complement each other, as both can have similar thematic focuses, according to Marshall.
“The hope has been and still is that the more robust intellectual possibilities of working from a university can be a real complement to the operational experience of an organization like the World Bank,” Marshall wrote in an email to The Hoya. “That is what I try to achieve in both research and in engaging with students on issues.”
Cha has likewise led a career devoted to policy in addition to academia. He began teaching at Georgetown in 1995 but took a leave from the university from 2004 to 2007 to work as the director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush.
Cha easily returned to teaching by applying his public service experience directly to his academic work at Georgetown, in part by developing a course on sports and politics upon returning to the university.
Even though policy-oriented jobs and academia maintain thematic similarities, challenges remain when transitioning between the different spheres, according to Marshall.
“Balance is a constant challenge, for me as for many others,” Marshall wrote. “At my stage of life I am able to devote most of my time to professional work, but with many different responsibilities I find it daunting at times.”
The Influence of Practice in the Classroom
Policy experience can enhance the classroom experience for multiple reasons, including by giving professors the ability to ground concepts in specific examples, according to Ellena Joo (SFS ’21), who has taken multiple classes with Cha. Georgetown professors with policy experience can draw on their past work to demonstrate how concepts are applied in a real-world setting.
The policy focus of the Cha’s courses, which include “Modern Asia: Politics and Society” and “Korea and the World Powers,” reflect Cha’s experience in the region and teach students to think like policymakers, according to Joo.
“He also really makes an effort to ask us questions in class that are very policy-centered, and the bulk of our discussions are about what we would do if we were the future policy advisers and experts of this region,” Joo said in an interview with The Hoya. “I’ve just grown a lot as a policy thinker.”
Incorporating personal anecdotes and examples from the policy world into the classroom makes classroom experiences more vibrant and engaging, according to Cha.
“There’s a little bit of that storytelling that takes place in class,” Cha said. “It’s always related to making some sort of point about a concept. It allowed me to bring to life some of the theories that we teach with examples, not just historical examples like I said, which are important, but also examples that I personally was involved in.”
Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, a professor of international relations in the SFS, worked for a decade at the State Department. Sedaca served as senior adviser to the under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs and senior director for strategic planning and external affairs in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Having also worked at the George W. Bush Institute and the Atlantic Council, Sedaca not only incorporates these experiences into her courses, but also connects students to her outside work.
“The students in my Human Rights Policy Lab seminar were able to meet with an extraordinary group of Burmese scholars, hosted by the George W. Bush Institute,” Sedaca wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It was a great opportunity for my students to dialogue with these courageous activists, while also enabling several of us from the Georgetown community to share some of our work on democracy, human rights, and political negotiations.”
A Multidisciplinary Approach to Teaching
Professors can use a multidisciplinary approach rooted in their careers in policy, mirroring their work in a way that prepares students to apply courses to the real world.
International relations professor Rebecca Patterson spent over two decades with the U.S. military and served as deputy director in the Office of Peace Operations, Sanctions, and Counterterrorism at the State Department. While at the State Department, Patterson worked on how United Nations peacekeeping missions intersected with U.S. policy toward the host nation. Patterson currently uses this experience to inform her students about policy choices, such as when intervention from the UN is a good or bad idea, according to Patterson.
Understanding the real-world applications of academic content is essential when creating a course based on policy experience, according to Patterson.
“When I develop curriculum, I try to be very outcomes-based,” Patterson said in an interview with The Hoya. “What are the two or three big things I want them to be able to live beyond the course?”
Emphasizing the benefits of multidisciplinary approaches in practice better informs students on how to apply what they are learning, according to Marshall.
“How do you link a solid understanding and respect for scholarship with an appreciation of how these things translate into practice on a daily basis?” Marshall wrote. “The work that I’m doing draws on seven, eight different disciplines and so that to me is very important.”
Georgetown professors with experience in academia and policy highlight the significance that both perspectives play in making sense of complex global issues. Both academic and policy-oriented outlooks are vital to understanding the relationship between religion and development, according to Marshall.
Multidisciplinary analysis also helps professors explain the complexities of real-world scenarios, such as how policy is implemented, which is difficult to teach without having direct experience in the policy world, according to Cha.
“There are some aspects of policy — the so-called sausage-making of policy — that can’t accurately be captured in scholarship,” Cha said. “Experiencing all of this helped me to be a better teacher and better scholar.”