September 30, 2021

AGGARWAL | Expanding the Scope of Policy at Cornell

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This semester, Cornell University officially opened a new school: the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy. Named after Jeb E. Brooks MBA ‘70 and the Brooks Family Foundation, this new school “aims to unite policy-related disciplines and increase Cornell’s prominence in the social sciences.”

As the newest school of its kind, we are presented with an exciting opportunity to introduce a curriculum that reflects the modern dynamics of policy in our country. With technological conglomerates and business executives shaping policy, testifying in Congress and participating in our politics more than ever before, Cornell is uniquely positioned to emulate this complex relationship between technology and policy by following frameworks set forth in our tech entrepreneurship-infused community. 

Not only could we speak to the relationship between technology and policy — and the influence technology specifically has in shaping public policy — but we could even go a step further. I believe our school has an unparalleled opportunity to incorporate practical characteristics of the tech world in the establishment of our public policy curriculum. This could both make the world of public policy more accessible for those from STEM-oriented backgrounds and it could also streamline and democratize the process in which policy is determined and developed.

President Martha Pollack said that the creation of this school is “another exciting step toward further boosting multidisciplinary public policy research, teaching and engagement at the university.” 

A marriage of two different disciplines that Cornell already does successfully is that of technology and entrepreneurship. I see this as a great blueprint for how public policy could tap into our immense technology infrastructure. 

Accessible, student-oriented programming should be included in the School of Public Policy. The overall approach in this collaboration could be an immersive one; emulating extracurricular experiences ranging from hackathons to project teams to the entrepreneurial community at eLab, there are many engaging opportunities to use as frameworks for students to explore the intersection of technology and policy.

Similar to the hackathons here like those of Digital Agriculture or Sustainability, the new public policy school could host a policython during which students gather and collaborate to produce comprehensive proposals on selected policy issues. Harvard University’s Policy for the People student-led organization hosts many of these a year on topics such as the pandemic and education policy. As a participant of multiple hackathons at Cornell and the Harvard Policython itself, I have found these weekends to be perfect, short-term and highly informative immersive experiences into previously foreign worlds. I imagine a policython at Cornell could provide the same window.

Secondly, project teams are another well-known, largely coveted example of the application of technology at Cornell. I was on CUSail my freshman year where I worked countless hours over the course of the year to build an autonomous sailboat. These project teams could be mirrored in a policy context with working groups. Students could have an equally as edifying experience in this field spending a semester selecting a specific policy topic, researching, consulting relevant sources and ultimately producing a policy report or legislative proposal for officials at all levels of governance. The goal would be to provide institutional support, branding and a platform that project teams benefit from and use to excel. 

Lastly, while policythons would grant participants a brief but intense look into the world of policy and working groups would create a more committed venture into policymaking, I believe an opportunity could also be created for self-starters in the policymaking process. Just as eLab serves as a student accelerator for eight to 12 real businesses each year, a civic accelerator could be created on our campus to encourage students to take a step beyond policy research into policy creation.

In fact, the method of creating and introducing public policy measures in an accelerator-type program has shown to be successful. Rise is a national movement that fights for the rights of sexual violence survivors worldwide. It passed the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act unanimously through Congress in 2016 and was signed into law by President Barack Obama, followed by more than 40 additional laws passed in states since then. Rise runs the first civic accelerator of its kind, called Rise Justice Labs, that selects fledgling activism movements and provides them with seed funding, weekly lectures and legislative guidance with the ultimate goal of them passing their own laws. To date, four teams from this accelerator have passed a total of six laws.

Just as eLab selects student entrepreneurs and fosters their success in establishing a business, a similar policy-focused initiative could successfully foster the success of legislative movements sprouting from campus. As a member of eLab’s cohort this year with my start-up and a participant in Rise’s civic accelerator for my proposal to increase access to municipal broadband networks, I very easily see the potential crossover between these worlds. 

Ultimately, the frameworks at Cornell that support entrepreneurship do not pertain solely to business, and our new School of Public Policy can support civic entrepreneurs through initiatives like policythons, working groups and a legislative accelerator.

Somil Aggarwal is a senior in the College of Engineering studying Computer Science. He can be reached at [email protected]. print(“Somil”) runs every other Wednesday this semester.