Public policies affect daily lives. They can strengthen democracies, protect individual rights, preserve the planet, promote social justice, enhance economies, and strengthen international relations. Or they can fail with disastrous consequences for individuals, societies, ecosystems, and world order.

The Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs has gained national visibility since its founding in 1996 as an informal interdisciplinary network of departments and programs across the university to address public policy challenges. The school, then based in the newly renamed College of Architecture, Arts, and Design, has established not just a strong national reputation, but highly productive collaborations with departments in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. It was formally organized in 2003.

Now, faculty members in both the school and those departments, who have collaborated since the 1990s, have the opportunity to work even more closely together.

Members of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors voted in March to approve a reorganization that would include the transfer of the School of Public and International Affairs to the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. That transfer brings experts from across disciplines together to enhance the university’s already considerable strengths in national security, public policy, cybersecurity, environmental and climate justice, foreign affairs, and urban planning.

The proposed changes took effect July 1, after approval by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

“As a specialist in the history of U.S. foreign relations, I could not be more excited about SPIA’s move to the college,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “It will enhance Virginia Tech’s capacity to elevate research and teaching aimed at improving the safety and well being of people around the world.”

The realignment will expand opportunities for undergraduate and graduate experiential learning and internships across the university’s Blacksburg, Richmond, and Arlington campuses. The programmatic quality is there. This year, for example, the graduate program in public affairs ranked 39 among 267 schools nationally, moving up nine slots from last year. This ranking places the school in the top 15 percent of schools of public policy in the country.

More so, the school’s three programs — the Center for Public Administration and Policy, Government and International Affairs, and Urban Affairs and Planning — already have a long history of collaboration with the equally distinguished Department of Political Science.

The transition will increase this synergy.

“We already share students, cross-list courses, teach the Washington Semester for undergraduates together, and collaborate on the Diplomacy Lab, a U.S. State Department program based in our college," said Timothy Luke, a University Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Political Science who also will serve as the school’s interim director. "The transfer would allow operations to be more fluid, as well as more understandable for external audiences. Nationally, in fact, most university-based schools of public and international affairs are affiliated with liberal arts colleges.”

Luke added that the department — which offers majors in European and transatlantic studies, international public policy, international relations, international studies, political science, and national security and foreign affairs— shares a global perspective with the school.

Their local, national, and international interests also overlap with those of the Department of Sociology.

“In our department, we think about criminology, medical sociology, health disparities, and all the ways that sociology supports policymaking,” said Jennifer Johnson, a professor and chair of the Department of Sociology. “The humanities and social sciences are so relevant to policy. I’m excited about this transfer because one of the aspirations of sociology as a discipline is to engage with the public. We call it public sociology when sociologists raise their voices outside the classroom, to inject points of knowledge into the public discourse.

“Virginia Tech can play a leading role in policymaking in Richmond and even on Capitol Hill,” Johnson added. “We would have the opportunity to lead policymaking in a way that’s grounded in a strong understanding of the human condition and the impact of policy on people’s lives. Bringing the school into our college would demonstrate that leadership.”

The reorganization involves several other strategic moves. The School of Performing Arts, now in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, will transfer to the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design. That college — which already includes the School of Architecture, the School of Design, and the School of Visual Arts — has been renamed the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design to reflect its new disciplinary composition. And the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, currently in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design, will transfer to the College of Engineering.

None of the proposed changes will affect existing degree plans, and all degrees will transfer with their existing schools.

“When I think about the transfer of the School of Public and International Affairs into our college, the word that comes to mind is intuitive,” said Saul Halfon, an associate professor who chairs the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, which has decades-long ties to the school. “We already share scholarly approaches, goals, cross-listed courses, and even ambitious visions for the future. Being in the same college would ease our collaborations and help us all more easily imagine — and create — new opportunities.

“The faculty would benefit from this closer alliance, as would our students — and the students are why we’re all here," he said.

- By Paula Byron