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Director’s Message – After the 2016 Elections

The following letter was written to Sanford School of Public Policy Alumni and Friends from Dr. Fritz Mayer following the 2014 elections. 


Dear Sanford School Alumni and Friends,

I write to tell you about how we at the Sanford School are responding to the 2016 election and to perhaps the greatest challenge of our time: the ever-more-apparent dysfunction of American politics. In my adult lifetime, I have never seen such vitriol and incivility, such extreme partisanship, such distrust of our political institutions, and such profound divides between Americans as we have just witnessed. This is dangerous territory for democracy. Whatever your political leanings, I’m sure you agree that we must do better.

A little over a year ago, the Sanford School established the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service (POLIS) with two missions: to harness the talent, energy, creativity, and ambition of the whole Duke community—faculty, students, alumni, and friends—to fix our politics; and to make Duke a place where students are deeply engaged in political life, and where they see politics as a viable, aspirational, and even noble pursuit.

We’ve done a lot in a short time. We’ve fostered bi-partisan dialogue among North Carolina’s leaders through the establishment of the North Carolina Leadership Forum; begun tackling the problem of gerrymandering with a major project led by UNC System President Emeritus Tom Ross, our first Terry Sanford Distinguished Fellow; and hosted a major conference on how political cartoons and political satire can address difficult political issues. We’ve supported student voter turnout efforts, created a leadership council representing diverse student political and identity groups, and sponsored numerous speakers and other student-oriented events. And, in recent days, we’ve been front and center in facilitating conversations among students, faculty, and staff about the meaning of the 2016 election.

Now, the urgency of the moment compels us to redouble our efforts and to set even more ambitious goals. We need to be a national leader in finding our way out of this morass, a place that thought leaders look to for inspiration, that models how to have informed civil dialogue and respectful disagreement, and that inspires and empowers the next generation of Duke students to lead North Carolina, America, and the world to a better political future.

What we have heard from our conversations, in particular, is that we all need to learn to talk to each other, and to listen. As we enter 2017, therefore, our primary focus will be on fostering informed, civil discourse and on bridging the divides that separate us. In January we’ll be launching “The Purple Project: Bridging the Divide Between Red and Blue America” involving major speakers, student workshops, and other events. The launch is just the beginning of a multi-year project now being planned. I’m also excited about the January opening of “The Democracy Lab,” an incubator that will give course credit for student projects that tackle political problems in innovative ways.

I want to assure you that in all our efforts POLIS will be assiduously non-partisan. But we will not shy away from standing for politics that is informed by facts, that includes diverse voices, that exhibits civility and respect, that builds community, and that calls, in the words of Lincoln, on the better angels of our nature.

If you’d like to know more about what we are doing or to help us in our efforts, I’d love to connect. Please contact me at or BJ Rudell, Associate Director of POLIS, at

With my best wishes,


Frederick “Fritz” Mayer
Associate Dean for Strategy and Innovation
Professor of Public Policy, Political Science and Environment
Director, POLIS: The Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service
124 Rubenstein Hall
(919) 613-9209

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