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Public Policy & Social Change


Scientific tradition derives its capacity for self-renewal from its belief in the presence of a hidden reality, of which current science is one aspect, while other aspects of it are to be revealed by future discoveries. Any tradition fostering the progress of thought must have this intention: to teach its current ideas as stages leading on to unknown truths which, when discovered, might dissent from the very teachings which engendered them... I call this a society of explorers.

Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (1966)

We are at a challenging moment in human history. In a world that is increasingly becoming more focused and narrow, we are also facing a greater confluence of culture and diversity. 1995 Nobel Prize recipient in chemistry, Paul Crutzen, believes that we have entered the era of anthropocene, a time where human activities impact on a global scale the way our planet performs its environmental functions. Vis-à-vis nature, human power has grown exponentially. Current debate about climate change reflects the limits of societies’ ability to measure direct impacts of their actions and nonlinear effects on our planets. In addition, the Westphalian state system born in 1648 seems inadequate to provide adequate structures in which many new states can function and thrive. Hence, administrative and political failure, coupled with economic hardship, has led to instability in many parts of the world. A telling example is the case of oil producing countries in the developing world: a few become rich and the great mass becomes poorer. As a result, the majority of oil is produced in unstable areas causing uncertainty both on global market and domestic policies. For other reasons, here at home, a growing income gap has become a permanent feature of the national economy and 45 million people have no health insurance in the US.

In the face of these challenges, there is a need to question and critically re-examine the principles and values that govern our societies. There is a call to re-assess the ways in which human knowledge is produced and applied, and to train committed agents for social change who will work to solve the issues confronting our societies. That is the mission of the Public Policy and Social Change concentration.

Interdisciplinary Inquiry

An interdisciplinary spirit of critical inquiry unconstrained by the narrowly drawn boundaries of the academy has long been a hallmark of Union Institute & University.  This spirit defines the distinctive approach to public policy in the Public Policy and Social Change concentration.  Rather than carving up social and political life into neat, manageable sectors of economic, political, sociological, and theoretical issues, the interdisciplinary approach we practice trains scholar-practitioners to study issues in their full complexity.  Building upon the insights and methods of established disciplines, interdisciplinary inquiry involves a creative striving toward new or alternative ways of seeing that disclose heretofore unrecognized possibilities for human action.  Instead of producing specialists ill at ease outside their narrow expertise, we strive to educate engaged citizen-scholars, as at home with the theoretical, historical, and cultural foundations of policy as with the intricacies of the practical politics of the policy process.

Philosophy and Methodology

Scholarship in today’s world requires a reexamination of the ways we generate knowledge and apply technique. Traditional disciplinary approaches have privileged methods focused on a detailed understanding of narrow topics. It analyzes particular pieces of a complex system, studying them almost in isolation. This method of scientific inquiry is bound to cause-and-effect logic. As Will Steffen put it his essay “Just Another Environmental Problem?”, “Perhaps this approach to knowledge generation is itself a problem, and is thus not likely to be part of the solution. What we lack a is more integrated, holistic way of looking at how the complex world around us really works, and our role in it...Such reexamination may determine how successfully we deal with the consequences of the Anthropocene.”

Public Policy and Social Change Faculty


As outlined on the Program Overview, all students are required to complete four Interdisciplinary Foundations Seminars as well as the Academic Skills and Research Methods sequences. In addition, students opting for a Primary Concentration in Public Policy and Social Change will take two 3-credit-hour courses Core Seminars and four 3-credit-hour Advanced Seminars as well as three Electives and two individualized Studies. The Comprehensive Examination and Dissertation will complete the course of study.

Please note that the content of individual seminars described below is subject to change and that not all advanced seminars are offered during every term. Additional special topics seminars will be offered depending on the interests of students as well as the availability of regular faculty and visiting scholars. Sample syllabi on the program’s website are provided for informational purposes only; they may not reflect the content and policies of seminars currently being offered.