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My time as Fox Fellow @Yale

5 Aug 2018

2017-18 was undoubtedly the most eventful year of my Ph.D. program at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and one the most memorable years of my life, for it was the year I went to Yale. I was nominated for the Fox International Fellowship by the National University of Singapore. Having already defended my research proposal, my intention was to use the opportunities provided by the fellowship to interact with Yale faculty, senior Fellows and peers who might share similar interests, work on my thesis and present my research as it evolved.

I was based at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for international and Area Studies at Yale from August 2017 till July 2018. During this period, I made progress towards the academic milestones, but my biggest takeaways were on the social and extra-curricular front. I am a social introvert, typically reluctant to go beyond established work routines and familiar social circles. At Yale, I made a conscious effort to step beyond my comfort zone to seek out new experiences, make new friends and engage in activities which in the normal course I may have entirely avoided. I am glad I did so. My journey was as much personal as it was professional, and I found both the avenues and the environment to make it possible. Having completed the Fellowship, I have returned to Singapore to finish my degree. While not exhaustive, what follows is a summary of my work as a Fox Fellow and snapshots of my experience at Yale.

Research @Yale

My research focuses on health policy and health systems. I apply public policy and management theory to the organization and practice of public health. My research at Yale looked at recent governance reforms in India’s public hospitals, in particular the suitability and effectiveness of using market instruments for improving their performance, and its implications for public ethos and policy.

I was fortunate to have opportunities to discuss my research with two of the most prominent health policy experts in the United States and leading academic scholars in my field: Prof. Jacob Hacker, Director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, and Prof. Theodore Marmor, Professor Emeritus of Public Policy, Management and Political Science. In addition, the work-in-progress workshops provided an excellent forum for receiving more feedback from peers and from Prof. Ben Cashore, Academic Director of the Fox Fellowship and my mentor. These interactions provided me with insights on issues such as the assumption of private sector efficiency, difficulties in setting up and managing competition, challenges of regulating the private sector, poor motivation and inability of the public sector to respond to competition, consumer responses to government policy through ‘exit’ or ‘voice’, parallels with school choice policies in the United Sates, the idea of competition beyond markets, resource constraints that limit policy choices and effectiveness in developing countries, the need for a rights-based perspective in social policy, and for nuance and prudence in comparative research. Some of these thoughts were articulated in a policy brief I prepared for the Scholars Strategy Network as part of Fellowship activities.


Fox Fellowship Retreat
Discussing my research at the Fox Fellowship Retreat at Yale Camp, Great Mountain Forest

I presented some of my recent research at the South Asia Studies Council’s Brown Bag forum and as part of the MacMillan Visiting Scholars Speaker Series. The Fellowship also facilitated my participation at the Public Management Research Conference (PMRC) 2018 held in Singapore. While I spent the majority of my time designing and implementing a survey for healthcare providers for my doctoral research, I had flexibility to undertake other academic tasks such as working on publications and journal review. For instance, I coauthored a journal article on the flawed design of India’s Universal Health Coverage program, and a book chapter on how poor understanding of the mechanisms of policy action may have contributed to the failure of Public-Private Partnerships in the Indian healthcare sector.

Speaking at the South Asia Brown Bag, MacMillan
Speaking at the South Asia Brown Bag, MacMillan Center

Learning

Yale holds a unique position as an academic institution that emphasizes the incorporation of social perspectives into academic disciplines. This is evident from the diverse societal issues adopted by the university’s curricula and persons of eminence invited as guest faculty and speakers from different walks of life each year.

John Kerry in conversation with Al Gore
John Kerry in conversation with Al Gore

I had the privilege of listening to Former US Secretaries of State John Kerry and Henry Kissinger, Former US Vice President Al Gore and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein among others on a variety of issues ranging from local innovations in environmental activism, the evolving USRussia relationship and the growing acceptance of majoritarianism and neglect of human rights within the world’s largest democracies. This was a year that saw tectonic shifts in American and global politics leading to policy repositioning and a realignment of traditional alliances. Having a keen interest in world politics, I was grateful to have a front row seat to observe and discuss many of these developments as they unraveled.

Lunch talk with Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
Lunch talk with Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

 

I had several opportunities to learn new skills beyond the confines of my immediate research interests. I picked up more confidence from the public speaking workshops organized by the Fellowship, teaching techniques for the classroom, the use of reference managers to organize research citations and utilizing electronic and social media for managing research communication and creating an effective digital footprint. While I couldn’t attend Prof. Laurie Santos’ Happiness Class that made international headlines, I decided to take The Happiness Challenge – an 8-week online habit change program designed to help students cope with stress, break procrastination, improve communication, create an exercise routine and inculcate sleep hygiene. I followed the program diligently and noticed it had a positive effect that helped me adjust better to life at Yale.

Life in America

While the academic exchange was excellent, what I will most remember about my time as a Fox Fellow is the cultural experience. This was my first visit to the US, and America was every bit what I had imagined it to be –diverse, accepting of other cultures and open to new thinking. These qualities are an aspirational benchmark for other cultures to emulate. The welcoming spirit and hospitality were evident at the Thanksgiving luncheon at the Fox family’s ancestral home in Norfolk, which has become something of an annual tradition. This was the first year of Thanksgiving without Joe Fox, the founder of the Fox Fellowship, and while we missed his presence, the family was most courteous in making us feel a part of them.

With the Fox family in Norfolk for Thanksgiving
With the Fox family in Norfolk for Thanksgiving

My wife had accompanied me at the start of the Fellowship, and we spent about two weeks acquainting ourselves to the way of life in America. We experienced touristy New York and the local flavor of New Haven, and loved both equally. I continued my exploration with newfound friends, and though I was perhaps less adventurous then my peers, I sampled a range of experiences – my first snowfall and taste of East Coast winter, Yale’s victory over Harvard in the Ivy League championship at Yale Bowl, my first ice hockey game at The Whale, symphony concerts in Woolsey Hall and plays at Yale Repertory Theatre, workouts in the Payne and Whitney gym and run routines on the streets of Yale campus and East Rock Park.

Yale Bulldogs defeat the Harvard Crimson 
Yale Bulldogs defeat the Harvard Crimson

At the Yale Vs. Dartmouth men’s ice hockey game
At the Yale Vs. Dartmouth men’s ice hockey game

Strangely, while I made new connections, I unexpectedly rediscovered old ones. To my pleasant surprise, I found from an article in the Yale Daily News that an acquaintance who had toured India as a Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations almost a decade ago and who I had subsequently lost touch with, is a Yale Alumnus and the Mayor of Hartford. I reached out and was graciously hosted by his family. I similarly learnt that an ex-colleague from India is a graduate student in political science at Yale, and organizer of the South Asia Brown Bag at the MacMillan Center. Such accidental encounters point to the interconnectedness of the world we live in today, and symbolic of the Fox Fellowship bridging divides, just as Joe Fox had intended. 
A beautiful a capella perfromance at the Wadsworth
A beautiful a capella perfromance at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford

Carrying the Torch

“Once a Fox Fellow, always a Fox Fellow” is what Ben Cashore tells every fresh batch of recruits. This year, the Fellowship Office took an important step in formally integrating it into the larger community of Yale Alums. While this bestows on us the same privileges such as access to Yale’s networks and resources, it also means an added responsibility as “citizen scholars” to the Fellowship’s mandate of making societal change happen wherever we reside, foster the Fox network and provide support systems to future Fellows.

On a run to East Rock
On a run to East Rock

I was happy to be engaged in and contribute to the review and decision-making process for identifying new institutional partners for the next round of the Fellowship’s expansion, thus becoming in some ways a part of its history. As promised to Ms. Fox at the farewell dinner to be the Fellowship ambassador in Singapore, I encouraged the current Fox Fellow from NUS to apply for the Fellowship. The Fellowship team including Gilad Abiri, Julia Muravnik and Carol Sequino were fantastic hosts during my stay at Yale. I look forward to return the hospitality and welcome the incoming Fox Fellow from Yale later this year.

Altaf Virani

PhD Candidate, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy