maria cancian speaking at podium
Called to Be: Learning & Discovery

Title:McCourt School Dean Maria Cancian on the challenges and opportunities of this moment

Prior to joining Georgetown University in February 2019 as dean of the McCourt School of Public Policy, Maria Cancian advised local, state, and federal agencies on policy initiatives designed to improve outcomes, especially for low income and otherwise vulnerable families. She held leadership roles in the Obama administration, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was a longtime faculty member.

These days, Cancian is focused on building the world’s most inclusive school of public policy—and developing future generations of rigorously trained, ethically grounded leaders. She spoke with Georgetown Magazine about her experience and vision for this work.

“Working together for the common good, we really can change.”

—Maria Cancian

You are an economist by training, and your research focuses on the intersection of public policy and family well-being. What motivated you to study this area of social policy?

Families and public institutions shape the opportunities available to each of us to develop, to address our own needs, and to contribute to the community. We sometimes think of government as the “public” sphere and the family as “private,” but they are fundamentally interdependent. Our expectations about what constitutes a family, and how families should function, shape our policies—obviously in the case of, for example, child support or child welfare policy, but also in the case of policies such as taxation, education, and income support.

I have always been interested in how public policies shape the context in which families function and how the opportunities and incentives to marry, to have children, and to work, vary over time and for different groups of people.

What drew you to the McCourt School and Georgetown?

Having just come out of a role in the federal government, I understood how critical civil servants are to the quality of life for all of us. The role of McCourt dean offers me the opportunity to build a school that trains the leaders of tomorrow—it’s both an incredible privilege and an incredible challenge.

I believe the McCourt School—given its resources, location, and the stature and mission of Georgetown University—can have a great impact on the capacity for effective, evidence-based, collective action for the common good. And now the investment from Frank H. McCourt Jr. is an enormous step forward. It challenges us to not be limited by where we are right now, but to really think about where we need to go and how we are going to get there.

What have you learned from the challenges of 2020?

This past year made it crystal clear how critical it is for us to be able to work together, whether that’s working together within government, across governments, or between government and civil society, the private sector, and other institutions.

We are at a moment where the faint-hearted could feel discouraged. The combination of the pandemic, of our growing awareness of racial inequality, of the economic challenges that have accompanied COVID-19, of the global climate challenge—it can all feel overwhelming. But there’s also a call to action. This is an opportunity for us to step forward and understand the challenges that we face, and that working together for the common good, we really can change. The McCourt School is designed to train the people who can lead the organizations, the movements, and the efforts that will make that possible.

students studying at table

Why is inclusivity so crucial to this ambition?

Our aspiration to be the most inclusive top public policy school in the world is fundamental to what we are trying to accomplish here. We want to attract students with diverse perspectives and lived experiences, but united by their commitment to the common good. We want to enroll them without regard to their ability to pay—and to enable our graduates to pursue their passions without having to prioritize jobs where they can earn enough to pay off their student loans.

Our institutions need to draw from a diverse pool of talent, and those leaders need to represent the people who are being served. The most effective and equitable policy solutions come when you have people with a wide variety of ideas around the table, and when all those people feel like they’re in an environment where they can fully engage. So here at the McCourt School, we’re very focused on bringing together a broad set of individuals, a broad set of ideas, and creating an environment where people can work across their differences to advance new solutions.

What else is ahead for the McCourt School?

I’m excited about the faculty that we’ve built and our plans to move downtown as part of Georgetown’s Capitol Campus. The Capitol Campus will physically unite the school’s research and teaching arms and provides a dynamic front door to Georgetown for the policy community.

We are excited to be next door to the Law Center, near so many key government institutions, and down the street from Howard University, an institution we are increasingly collaborating with. We’re also excited to be in the center of Washington, D.C., because we have a real commitment to our local community.

We are positioned to make an enormous impact at a time when the world needs the rigorously trained, ethically grounded, and impatient changemakers of the McCourt School.

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