David Blanding steps into new role as director of Watson's Master of Public Affairs program

David Blanding, who earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Brown University, returned to the University a year ago as an associate professor of the practice of international and public affairs. This year, he steps into a new role as director of Watson's Master of Public Affairs program.

After having established a successful career working in government and academia, David Blanding has returned to the place where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science — Brown University — bringing with him a wealth of practical, research and teaching experience. In July of 2023, he assumed the role of director of Watson's Master of Public Affairs program

Returning to Brown

Prior to joining Watson, Blanding worked for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan agency that conducts research on federal policies and programs for Congress where he served as director of Leadership and Executive Development Programs in their Learning Center where he advised teams on conducting performance audits of federal programs and agencies. Blanding previously taught political science, public policy and law at American University, McDaniel College and Brown University. He has also published research on U.S. voting, economic development and social welfare policies. Earlier in his career, he advocated for racial justice at the American Civil Liberties Union. 

When asked why he returned to Brown, Blanding responded, "I'm really driven by Watson's mission to create a more just and peaceful world. It's an ambitious goal but it's what we need right now." He continued, "I see the MPA program playing a critical role in achieving that mission because we train the people who ideally will become leaders in the field of public affairs and be in those roles creating the more just and peaceful world that we're all seeking."

Taking on a leadership role

Blanding said he is excited to take on a leadership role in the MPA program, "As someone who studies public policy and politics and is trained as a political scientist, it's an opportunity for me to contribute to shaping the next generation of policy leaders, which I think is really important because there's no doubt that we are awash in problems — both social and political — in the world right now."

Blanding noted that he has been deeply involved with the MPA curriculum since his arrival at Watson in the fall of 2022. "I am also an associate professor of practice at Watson and in that capacity last year I started teaching several MPA courses, including one that I developed called Principles and Practices of Stakeholder Engagement, one I inherited from another faculty member, Race and Public Policy, and third the course that accompanies the Policy in Action Project that all of our MPA students have to complete," said Blanding.

"After that first year," he continued, "Watson's leadership approached me about assuming the role of faculty director of the MPA program, at what I think is a propitious time given Watson's growth. Having people like Susan Moffitt who's now director of academic programs and Anya Bassett who's performing in a similar capacity on the undergraduate side will help Watson mature and develop over the next few years."

Training students to make a difference

Blanding said Watson's MPA graduates are trained to make a difference in the world. "We teach how to change the world, and how to change public policy in particular," he said. "We equip students with the skills they need to do that." 

"We deal with human beings — human behavior,” said Blanding, “which is inherently unpredictable. Blanding said that unpredictability means a specific set of skills is needed in the field. "You have to be adept at things like communication, project management and emotional intelligence," he said. "Our courses are designed to foster the development of those skills — the technical and non-technical skills, and what I like to call 'the social skills of leadership.' These skills will help our students become the leaders that we need."

“ Fostering learning through real-world experience has always been, and will continue to be, a key element of our program. ”

David Blanding Director of the Master of Public Affairs Program

Real-world experience — policy in action

Blanding emphasized that he was eager to maintain the MPA program's focus on practical experience — embodied in the Policy in Action Program — within the context of a structured, rigorous academic program. "It's in that environment," Blanding said, "where students get to make sense of the things that they have learned about in textbooks and classes and direct them toward real problems that need solving." "Fostering learning through real-world experience has always been, and will continue to be, a key element of our program," he added. 

Likewise, the program is structured to incorporate applied elements into coursework. "In classes, we try to connect the theoretical frameworks and tools that students learn throughout the program with real-world cases," said Blanding. 

As an example, Blanding cites how he arranged for the Rhode Island Department of Health and Human Services to be a project sponsor in the spring. "They'll be working on a really complex policy issue," he said. "It's not just a case study. It's a real problem that exists right now, which is that household energy costs are too high for many people in Rhode Island." 

Blanding points out that since all of the students live in Rhode Island they also have a personal stake in the issue. "At some point this fall or winter," he said "they're going to get energy bills that are likely to be a little bit higher than they are right now. They're going to see firsthand that it creates a conundrum for some people in terms of how to reallocate resources when their heating bill goes up. And at the same time, they're going to be in a position to think this through systematically, critically and thoughtfully so that they can help solve the problem."

'Competent, motivated, dedicated staff'

Blanding said he knows he cannot accomplish these goals alone and noted he is grateful to have a highly professional staff already in place. "One of the great things about being a leader in any environment is walking into a space where you have competent, motivated, dedicated staff. And I'm really fortunate that I have that," he said. 

"Every staff member is clearly focused on helping students be as successful as they can be," said Blanding. "And they're bringing the experiences that they have from other environments to bear upon this environment." He added, "I'm learning a lot from them. They've been very helpful and forthcoming with information about what we've done historically, about challenges we may have encountered, and opportunities that lay before us. And I think it's just been fantastic to work with all of them."