As Anil Deolalikar prepared to step down this week as the founding dean of UCR’s School of Public Policy, he reflected on a groundbreaking career marked by repeatedly choosing a more challenging path.
Consider when he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in economics at Harvard University in 1977 with summa cum laude honors. The world was at his palm, but the obvious option of going to a top business or law school “never really crossed my mind,” he said.
“A lot of my friends were going into business, law, and medicine, and so they thought I was a little crazy,” he said.
Instead, Deolalikar was enamored by the less lucrative but more personally rewarding world of global development economics.
“It was a very exciting time to be a development economist who was focused on researching the type of public policies that would bring about an improvement in living standards for the vast majority of humanity that had been living in poverty for centuries,” Deolalikar said. “When I saw my professors at Harvard working on important, cutting-edge issues in less-developed countries, it was so exciting. I really wanted to be like them.”
So began an academic career in developing-world economics, with a great interest in how populations and economies interact. After obtaining a master’s degree at Cambridge University and a doctoral degree at Stanford University, he hit several academic hot spots working as a postdoc or assistant professor at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and the University of Washington. While researching economic demography at Yale, he came to another crossroads: the World Bank offered him a position as a development economist that would be far more lucrative than an academic career. But the downside was that he would be “more of an economics practitioner than an economics researcher and teacher.” It was a “stark choice,” he said, but academia was his passion.
“I decided, ‘Okay, I'm going to stick it out despite all the challenges and uncertainties. And, in retrospect, that turned out to be a wise decision because I’ve ended up over the last four decades working as an advisor with the World Bank (and other international development organizations such as the USAID, UNDP, and the Asian Development Bank), but as a faculty member, and as an academic, on my terms,” said Deolalikar, who has worked in more than two dozen countries in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe, and spent two year-long stretches (with his family) in Nairobi and New Delhi.
In 1989, Deolalikar settled into a tenured professor post at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“I loved the U Dub. And I really loved Seattle. That's where both of our kids were born. And I never imagined that I would leave the job,” Deolalikar said.
After 13 years in Seattle, as fate would have it, Deolalikar learned from a colleague and friend at UCR that UCR’s economics department was seeking a senior faculty in development economics. But it was more than a faculty post; UCR wanted the successful candidate to help envision and establish an interdisciplinary research and teaching initiative in public policy.
“So, I was told, ‘If you were to come here, you would actually shape that initiative.’”
Deolalikar paused for a moment.
“Oh, wow,” he said. “Even though I was hired as an economics professor, I would be figuring out what UCR could do in public policy.”
UCR was fertile ground for such an initiative.
“There's a great deal of research that goes on at UCR in every imaginable area — environmental studies, immigration, health, education, civic and community engagement, even transportation engineering — that has profound implications for policy,” he said.
Deolalikar teamed up with David Warren, former executive vice chancellor and provost, to lead a task force comprising faculty from various disciplines across the campus. Over a year, the group consulted with hundreds of people, including UCR faculty members, graduate students, community leaders, mayors of the Inland Empire cities, leaders in Riverside and San Bernardino governments as well as state officials in Sacramento, on their vision of a UCR program in public policy studies.
“We tried to find out what they regarded as important issues for the campus and for the region to address,” he said.
The task force proposed the formation of a UCR School of Public Policy, saying it would not work well to have a public policy department in one of the colleges because there would be turf wars, among other issues.
“The unique thing about UCR is that people who have an interest in public policy are spread across all the different colleges and schools on campus,” he said. “So, we really needed to have a separate, interdisciplinary school of public policy that brought all these folks together.”
Deolalikar won the support of the chancellor and provost, who then urged him “‘to take the proposal for establishing a school of public policy forward and implement it.’”
His work had just begun, however. “They put it on me to shepherd this proposal through countless bureaucratic layers of the UC System,” Deolalikar said.
Plans for the public policy school went through different UCR Faculty Senate committees. Then he addressed the UC System-wide senate and Office of the President. A state government post-secondary education commission later had to sign off on it. Finally, in 2008, Deolalikar successfully presented the public policy school proposal to the UC Board of Regents.
Yet celebrations were short lived. A week later, the Lehman Brothers investment firm collapsed, ushering in the Great Recession. The UC System soon faced financial shortfalls. So, the UCR School of Public Policy had to wait. Still, Deolalikar launched an undergraduate public policy program — the only one of its kind in the UC system — within UCR’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.
Fortunately, the regental approval for a separate public policy school was good for five years. And in 2012, then-UCR Chancellor Timothy White approved the launch of the school. The next year Deolalikar was appointed founding dean of the new school.
The first 27 students for school’s flagship master’s degree program arrived on campus in 2015. And thanks to Deolalikar’s fundraising efforts, virtually all students of this inaugural class received scholarships that paid their tuition.
In 2018, the undergraduate public policy program was moved to the new school. The growing program now has slightly fewer than 300 students, a majority women and underrepresented students. And just this year, the school began to offer undergraduates a combined bachelor’s/master’s program in which they earn both degrees in five years.
For now, Deolalikar will stay on at UCR as an economics professor — after taking a year-long sabbatical. He is proud to see the public policy school’s graduates now taking influential jobs in politics, government, business, and non-profit foundations throughout Southern California and beyond.
“I see this as a unique opportunity that UCR offered me that rarely comes the way of most academics: the chance to build a program from scratch; a program that is focused on addressing the big challenges facing the region, the state and the nation; and a program that seeks to train and nurture students from underrepresented and disadvantaged communities to become policy and community leaders who can bring positive change to their own and other communities,” he said.
“I don't think that if I had been a plain-vanilla academic and done my research and published papers and taught students, I could have obtained the same level of professional and emotional satisfaction.”