Impactful Kohl Initiative brings new faculty, students, staff

Assistant Director Christina Orr of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
Christina Orr, assistant director of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, spoke on a panel at the La Follette Forum on health policy in March 2020.

What a difference a year has made – 10 exceptional faculty, 19 outstanding certificate program graduates, 350 dedicated health policy leaders, three enthusiastic staff, and so much more. Simply put, the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW–Madison is experiencing the most extensive growth in its 37-year history.

Much of the expansion is directly linked to the Kohl Initiative, a $10 million gift from former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl to the La Follette School in May 2019. The Kohl Initiative provides numerous opportunities for training future public leaders, expanding the School’s public outreach mission, and supporting influential research by faculty and students.

“Senator Kohl’s generous and inspirational gift could not have come at a better time,” said La Follette School Director and Professor Susan Webb Yackee. “Thoughtful and evidence-based policymaking is more important than ever in Wisconsin and across the country.”

The School’s unprecedented expansion already has had a wide-ranging impact on the School, the University, and the state, Yackee said.

Specifically, the gift provides wide-ranging resources for the School’s new Undergraduate Certificate in Public Policy program. The certificate program has tripled from an initial cohort of 50 students to more than 150 for fall 2020.

Of the program’s 19 recent graduates, two will begin the La Follette School’s Master of Public Affairs (MPA) program in fall along with two certificate students who will continue their studies in the School’s Accelerated program.

Undergraduates in the certificate program will have the opportunity to take several new classes this fall. Notably, two of the new classes focus on health policy, and Associate Professor Geoffrey Wallace, the Kohl Undergraduate Education Chair, will teach Inequality, Race, and Public Policy once again.

To meet students’ burgeoning interest in public policy, the La Follette School has added 10 new faculty members – nearly doubling its roster. These new faculty will provide expanded opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to learn about timely issues such as health policy, as well as the consequences of racial diversity for social relations and civic participation.

Other areas of expertise among the new faculty include climate policy, state and local finance, international trade, water policy, child health policy, and public management.

“Students at UW–Madison and elsewhere are confronting racial injustice and a global pandemic by raising their voices and demonstrating a commitment to a better tomorrow,” said Yackee. “They are seeking new opportunities to learn about the important role of public policy in everyday life, and the La Follette School is positioned to help students achieve their goals and to train the next generation of societal leaders.”

The Kohl Initiative also provided funding to support a new faculty member with expertise in state and local finance as well as financial support for current and new faculty members to conduct ground-breaking research, often working alongside La Follette School graduate students. Professor Greg Nemet and seven new faculty members received funding through the Herb Kohl Public Service Research Competition.

Kohl-funded research has focused on out-of-pocket healthcare costs, minimum wages and immigrants’ health, social genomics, state agency leadership and policymaking, and the impact of financial aid on college students’ post-education economic outcomes. Students who assisted with these and other research projects now work in the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and other organizations.

In addition, the Kohl Initiative allowed the School to convene nearly 350 policymakers, practitioners, community leaders, and researchers for its inaugural La Follette Forum in early 2020. The La Follette Forum focused on critical health policy topics and innovative solutions for improving the health of Wisconsin residents. It featured keynote presentations by Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Mia Keeys, director of health equity policy and advocacy for the American Medical Association. In 2021, the La Follette Forum will focus on climate policy.

Other forum participants included former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and Linda Vakunta, deputy mayor of Madison. The conference’s panel discussions also featured three state legislators – Rep. Debra Kolste and Sens. Dale Kooyenga and Jeff Smith.