Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris and me

Chris Game

If only Birmingham weren’t in Tier 3 … I could prop up bars in city centre pubs, casually conversing with fascinated fellow-drinkers: “You know that Kamala Harris, the American Vice-President-elect – yeah, the one wearing the Elvis-style white trouser ‘power suit’ for her victory speech.

“Well, I was a professorial contemporary of her Dad, Donald, at California’s prestigious Stanford University, don’t you know?  Thanks, mine’s another Plum Porter.”

Sadly, with Plum Porter purveyors currently closed, I’m driven to search for alternative captive audiences.  However, in contrast to bits of the current series of The Crown, this boast, while it may not ‘ring true’, actually IS true.  Before coming to INLOGOV in 1979 my employers for the previous five years were indeed Stanford – the posh, private, but definitely prestigious university north-westish of Silicon Valley.  

At least, that was Kamala’s Dad’s main workplace – I said ‘contemporary’ not ‘colleague’!  Mine was Stanford’s British Studies Center – note the spelling – at the also posh but less sunshiny Cliveden House on a National Trust estate near Maidenhead, where some hundred or so American students would come to spend two or three semesters of their undergrad years.

And the ‘Professor’ bit?  Well, as everyone knows, almost all US university academics have that generic title. ‘Full’ Professors are the real deal, while my Cliveden colleagues and I were ‘academic personnel’ – but on envelopes from HQ ‘Assistant Professors’.

It’s been mildly disquieting to see some UK universities going down the ‘Assistant Professor’ route – Warwick, for instance – but I’m not in the least bitter. I just regret not saving at least a few of those envelopes, because in four subsequent Birmingham decades I never managed even that.

Jamaican-born former economics Professor Donald Harris is/was at the distant other end of the scale: an Emeritus Professor since retiring early from Stanford after an exceptionally distinguished career and numerous international academic awards.

Here’s the thing, though.  Harris joined Stanford in 1972, yet in my creepily retained 600-page 1974/5 Stanford University Bulletin we Clivedenites and our taught courses all get several individual mentions, yet Donald not one.  Which, for apparently “the first Black person to receive tenure in Stanford’s economics department”, seemed rather odd.

Still, it provides a link to his elder daughter’s string of ‘firsts’ that actually prompted this blog: the first major personal career choice made by the first woman, first African American, and first Asian-American US Vice-President-elect.  California-born – for those, like President Trump, still questioning her Presidential eligibility; and her name, incidentally, pronounced not at all like ‘Pamela’, but ‘Comma-lah’ – from the Sanscrit for lotus flower.

Which is also relevant, because Kamala’s parents divorced when she was just seven, meaning she and her sister, Maya, were brought up largely by their Indian-born mother, Shyamala Gopalan – a bio-medical scientist, whose career in breast cancer research was every bit as outstanding as her husband’s, but who in 2009 would die of cancer herself.

It was her mother’s acceptance of a research post at McGill University Hospital in French-speaking Montreal that chiefly determined that Kamala went first to a French-speaking elementary school.  Then her mother moved the family again, so Kamala could attend Westmount High School, Quebec’s only public school offering so-called Advanced Placement courses for potentially university/college credit.

That university/college choice in by now the early 1980s, though, was definitely Kamala’s. After several majority-white schools, and her parents working in eminent but predominantly white institutions, she sought a wholly different experience. Young, gifted and black, she would live, learn, socialise, and at times protest against South African apartheid, with black students in a black university in a black city.

She would therefore attend one of the hundred or so HBCUs – Historically Black Colleges and Universities – and arguably the most renowned: Howard University in Washington DC, the African American community’s ‘Chocolate City’. And a short subway ride to both her current Capitol Hill workplace in the Senate and her future one in the White House. Back then it was no part of any life plan, but it can serve as a useful putdown today to those who accuse her of being ‘not really black’ or ‘not black enough’.

In the early 1970s Stanford University – students and staff – was unmistakeably Californian and white.  But I remember quite early learning of and being fascinated by the whole HBCU concept – partly because of the then still relatively recent appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first African American Supreme Court judge.

The HBCU initialism itself – not technically an acronym – is comparatively recent, a product of the historic 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Higher Education Acts. But the Black Colleges themselves date back in some cases 170+ years to before the Civil War and abolition of slavery.

Even following abolition, certainly in the Southern states, there was a century of institutionalised racial segregation of housing, medical care, employment, transportation and, of course, education.  And even universities and colleges that didn’t completely bar African Americans usually applied tight quotas, with all the other manifestations of discrimination.

One of those barred was future Justice Thurgood Marshall. He had applied to the University of Maryland Law School and been rejected through its segregation policy effectively banning blacks studying with whites.  He therefore attended and graduated with distinction from, yes, Howard University Law School – and later successfully sued Maryland for its discriminatory admissions policy.

Quite a role model, had Kamala been looking for one at the time – just as she surely will be to this and future generations of aspiring university students, female and male.

 

A version of this article appeared in The Birmingham Post on 26th November 2020.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

What Interpretive Policy Analysis can do for you!

Dr Koen Bartels

What do Covid-19, salmon fishing, post-earthquake resilience, the circular economy, and internet blackout have to do with each other? They were among the wide variety of issues addressed at the virtual event ‘Interpretive Approaches to Policy Studies: Developments, Challenges and Ways Forward’ that I recently co-organised with several colleagues from the Interpretive Policy Analysis (IPA) community.

To many people, IPA is, as one newcomer mentioned at the event, a nice beer. But to me and my colleagues, it is a well-established and compelling way of doing research. In the 1970s, a number of policy scholars began to question the dominant way of analysing policy. Inspired by recent advances in social theory, they pointed out that ‘facts’ cannot settle policy controversies, while language was not just used to represent policy issues but to shape them along the lines of particular values, interests and agendas. Since then, IPA has developed and spread so extensively that a large repertoire of interpretive methods is now available that suits analysis of every possible policy issue. There is also a dedicated journal, several academic networks, significant conference activity across the world, and a huge collection of publications indicating that the field has come of age.

The event aimed to bring together the wide variety of interpretive approaches to policy studies to take stock of the development of the field, celebrate its achievements, examine its challenges, and propose ways of moving forward. Far from a self-congratulatory exercise, we did so to identify ways to approach the pressing policy issues of our time, such as climate change, continuing discrimination of women, hostility towards refugees and migrants, and rising global economic and health inequalities. In this context, panel discussions examined:

  • how we can better understand and address policy conflict,
  • what it means to be critical of policy,
  • how to analyse policy discourses,
  • in which ways we can approach ‘malign’ policies, and
  • how action research can make IPA more transformative. 

A common thread in these discussions was that interpretive approaches reveal the underlying problems and unintended consequences of policies and identify innovative ways of addressing these. Policies are inevitably understood in different ways, ways which are bound to conflict and come with significant differences in power, values and interests. If we are unaware of this diversity in interpretations, and its impact, we are bound to get stuck or do more damage than good. As Heidrun Åm of the Norwegian University of Science & Technology aptly put it in her paper, “we need an interpretive approach that is sensitive to meaning making …, multiplicity and struggles over ideas …, seeking to understand and explain the practical bearings of specific meanings expressed and mobilized”.

So, what can IPA do for you? Let me return to the examples I offered at the start to illustrate. By critically analysing current Covid-19 policy discourse in the UK, it can predict that health inequalities will arise from the underlying behavioural ‘nudge’ approach. By revealing how what is constituted as ‘common’ or ‘public’, it can explain why big companies have managed to prevent an ecologically sustainable system for salmon fishing in Norway from taking hold. By identifying and integrating different ‘theories of change’ together with stakeholders, it can mobilise shared reflection, responsibility and future visions for community resilience in post-earthquake areas in Italy. By problematising ‘circular economy’ policy, it can foretell that economic interests will take precedence over environmental sustainability in Victoria (Australia). And by analysing how new technologies are mobilised by those in power, it can expose how an internet blackout was used in the armed conflict in Myanmar.

There are many other examples I could give you. But I hope that I have illustrated the significant value of IPA for critically analysing the complex policy issues of our age. And I invite you to join us as we move forward with addressing these, together finding answers to some of the pressing conceptual, methodological and practical questions that we now face: How can we go beyond thinking of policy conflict as an escalation that needs to be resolved by creating consensus? How can we critically reconstruct policies to address ‘meta-changes’? And how should we conceptualise and inspire transformative policy change?

Koen Bartels is Senior Lecturer at INLOGOV and Co-Convener of the ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis