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Meet Naazneen Barma, Director of the Scrivner Institute of Public Policy

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Alyssa Hurst

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Naaz Barma

Growing up, Naazneen Barma lived in Hong Kong and spent her summers in India, visiting grandparents. Even as a child, she saw the stark comparison between her two homes, and wondered.

“I was always puzzled by why things looked so different in these two different places. Why are people poor and hungry in one and well cared for and benefiting from booming economic growth in another?” says Barma, who recently joined the University of Denver as director of the Douglas and Mary Scrivner Institute of Public Policy.

Similar questions fueled Barma’s education in political science, economics and public policy and her eventual role with the World Bank, where her work addressed development policy in East Asia and the Pacific. After six years with the World Bank, Barma returned her attention to academia where she saw great potential impact in public policy. She became a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where she spent 10 years teaching mid-career military officers to become intelligence and foreign area officers.

“I really like being a doer,” she says. “[The World Bank] was still several steps removed, and a lot of times it felt like we were making progress on policy discussions and had a sound technical answer in terms of a good policy to put in place … and then we hit the roadblock of there being real people making these decisions and political factors at play. … I realized intellectually, but also in a practical sense, that these questions of ‘What is the politics of policy; what limits or enables policy to be made and implemented?’ were what I was deeply interested in.”

Pursuing these questions and encouraging students to adopt an inquisitive approach to public policy brought her to DU’s Scrivner Institute of Public Policy. Housed within the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, the institute brings an international eye to an area usually considered domestic.

“Typically, public policy schools and programs in the U.S. have been conceptualized as focused on the U.S.,” she notes. “Increasingly, so many core policy challenges span jurisdictions and scales of governance. So, to think about issues like inequality and democracy from the global level to the local level brings new perspectives to these topics.”

Those issues — inequality and democracy — will fuel the Scrivner Institute’s research pursuits going forward, Barma says. In addition to research, she plans to infuse the program with a new dialogue initiative to lift diverse voices. With an eye on innovation, she also plans to implement a curriculum revamp aimed at equipping students with modern skills and cross-disciplinary concentrations.

“It is an advantage for the Scrivner Institute that we are in Denver and not in Washington, D.C. More and more now, policy is made at all levels of government, partnering with groups in different spheres of life,” Barma says. “What I mean by diverse and innovative is building in ways to recognize the nature of a problem from all of these different angles and thinking through what interdisciplinary and multiscale solutions could be to our core challenges.”

For Barma, the COVID-19 pandemic represents one such challenge, and she hopes to see a renewed interest in public policy in its wake.

“These big seismic events draw people into public service,” she says. “Bringing people into disciplines that are fundamentally about assessing, analyzing and communicating about the way we see shared problems is important. This is a good time to be a student in a program like this. The world is only going to need more of our graduates.”

According to Fritz Mayer dean of the Korbel School, Barma is the right person to lead students in this pursuit: “I am thrilled by the appointment of Dr. Barma,” he says. “She brings a unique blend of policy experience, policy-relevant and impactful research, and deep commitment to practical and ethical training of future leaders. We could not have asked for a better person to lead the Scrivner Institute.”