group photo from 1998

Thriving at 25 Founded amid budget turmoil as an experiment in policy education, UCLA Public Policy is now among the country’s top programs

By Stan Paul

UCLA Luskin Public Policy has grown from upstart to leader among programs of its kind in just 25 years by stressing world-class scholarship and an interdisciplinary teaching approach.

Archie Kleingartner, the founding dean of what is now the Luskin School of Public Affairs, said it was the first new professional school at UCLA in over three decades. It merged existing Social Welfare and Urban Planning departments with a fledgling program in public policy at a time when teaching programs in public policy and related fields were flourishing elsewhere.

The School emerged from what Kleingartner describes as a complex, four-year process of deliberations and restructuring to serve a mandate to make deep cuts from UCLA’s professional schools amid a budget shortfall. As UC’s systemwide vice president for academic staff and personnel relations, Kleingartner chaired the committee that determined the need to restructure the professional schools.

“The centerpiece of this effort needed to include a robust expansion of the commitment to public policy,” Kleingartner recalled. The result has proven successful. “What the Chancellor and Board of Regents hoped to achieve when they approved the new school has in fact exceeded all expectations.”

Kleingartner served as dean from 1994-96, followed by the first permanent dean, Barbara J. Nelson. He praises today’s high research output and the quality of the faculty in policy fields, plus the School’s public service contributions — all visions that have transformed into actions.

“A growing cadre of alumni and recognition among experts and decision-makers add to the School’s prestige,” Kleingartner said. “UCLA is making a clear and visible contribution toward the public good through the Luskin School of Public Affairs.”

Emily Williams MPP ’98, the 2005 Alumna of the Year, would agree. As part of the School’s first class, she often had to explain at first what a Master of Public Policy was and had even developed an elevator pitch.

“Nobody knew what it was, let alone the acronym MPP. I mean, even among policymakers. It just wasn’t a term of art at the time,” Williams said. “I remember every single job interview, I had to explain it.”

Williams, who is now chief executive officer at UCLA-UCSF ACEs Aware Family Resilience Network (UCAAN), said, “Looking back 26 years after I graduated, what’s so great is I don’t have to explain what public policy is, and what that carries in this region is enormous.”

Marking 25 years since the first cohort of Master of Public Policy students graduated, a series of speaker events and alumni panels highlighted the program’s accomplishment during a monthslong commemoration. The speaker series featured four Alumni of the Year honorees who shared insights on the state of policymaking and the value of their Luskin educations.

The speakers and honorees included Assemblyman Isaac Bryan MPP ’18, who also participated in two other Luskin School events highlighted elsewhere in this issue of Luskin Forum.

Additional alumni speakers included Regina Wallace-Jones MPP ’99, CEO and president of ActBlue, a technology nonprofit that facilitates online donations to progressive organizations and candidates; and Sandeep Prasanna MPP/JD ’15, a senior legal advisor who served as investigative counsel on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“The thing they say about law school is that they teach you how to think like a lawyer,” Prasanna told the audience in February. “What I feel I learned at Luskin was how to do.”

Prasanna received his alumni award from UCLA Luskin’s newest chair of Public Policy, Robert Fairlie.

Commenting on his role, Fairlie said, “Teaching in the MPP program and being involved in alumni events has been extremely rewarding and inspiring. It is exciting to see what amazing things our graduates are doing.”

Also playing a key role has been Maciek Kolodziejczak, the department’s graduate advisor in 1996 when the first cohort arrived in Westwood. Although officially retired from the university since 2017, he has continued to participate in and influence the department, playing a major role in organizing the anniversary events.

“I started with the first class, so I didn’t recruit them — I received them,” Kolodziejczak said. “They were a class of 18, and I got to know each of them … [that’s] the fun part and the exciting part,” he said.

He described the first class as entrepreneurial trailblazers for taking the leap into “an unknown program with no reputation, no alumni and no track record.”

Kolodziejczak continued, saying, “They were just very willing to take the risk, and so there was just a kind of an esprit de corps among the class.”

UCLA Public Policy graduates now serve throughout the local, national and international levels. Among them is 1999 MPP alumna Nathalie Rayes, whose appointment as ambassador to Croatia is covered on page 4 of this edition.

In a UCLA Daily Bruin story, Rayes commented, “The importance of service is something that is part of my DNA. And so when the president calls you and says, ‘You know, I have a job for you: Would you like to be ambassador to Croatia?’ you say, ‘Yes.’”

Longtime UCLA Luskin Professor Mark Peterson also has seen Public Policy develop from over the years, calling it “the little engine that could.” Its high national standing “is remarkable given the fact that all of the top-ranked programs are older, most by decades, and almost all of them have vastly larger faculties than we do.”

Master of Public Policy — and MPP — now garner an immediate reaction, said Williams, who now also teaches a class at the Luskin School.

“I don’t even have to say UCLA, people know what the Luskin School of Public Affairs is, and that carries so much weight and merit. The Luskin name has really made the brand.”

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