Photo: Milan Ilnyckyj, http://www.sindark.com
On May 20, following a year-long international search, faculty, staff, alumni, and students welcomed the news of the appointment of a new Director at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto (SPPG): Professor Peter Loewen. Dr. Loewen is assuming this leadership role at the School as it enters its second decade and is attracting record numbers of applicants to its professional Master of Public Policy program.
A political scientist with a penchant for experimental research, Dr. Loewen joins SPPG from the Department of Political Science at University of Toronto, where he is an Associate Professor. He has also served as Director of the Centre for the Study of the United States at the Munk School of Global Affairs since 2013. His research focuses on the political behaviour of individuals and elected representatives — he firmly believes that politics can be studied in a systematic and rigorous manner, using methods of experimental and survey research.
Dr. Loewen’s dedication to public engagement, and to reaching a broader audience with his work, is what sets him apart from others in his field. He writes a regular column for the Ottawa Citizen on current issues in Canadian politics, with a focus on electoral systems, voting behaviour, Parliament, and political parties. In the past, he worked with Vote Compass, an online voter engagement application which he had a key role in developing. He also engages in consulting work with various electoral management bodies, including Elections Canada.
An avid motorcyclist, Dr. Loewen has ridden countless miles alone, with friends, and with his father, including long distance trips from Cairo to Cape Town and from Toronto to Patagonia. More recently, he has taken up sailing.
“Peter Loewen’s infectious energy and entrepreneurialism are just what we need to carry SPPG forward to the next level,” said Dr. Carolyn Tuohy, Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow at SPPG. “He is working at the forefront of experimental techniques in political science and sees the intersection of that work with what colleagues are doing in other disciplines. He is dedicated to giving voice to that expertise in the broad public sphere through multiple media channels.”
SPPG Professor Mel Cappe, former clerk of the Privy Council and Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, echoed this sentiment: “Peter Loewen represents the best of the next generation in scholarship, practice and leadership.”
Munk School of Global Affairs graduate Ariel Sim said of her former instructor: “Professor Loewen is candid above all else, followed by polite and kind. He’s really about being an old-style gentleman and new-style behaviouralist.” Her fellow Munk alumnus Eddie Kawooya praised Dr. Loewen’s ability to “break down and analyze the intricacies of political discourse in a way that is simple to the ordinary person.”
The Public Policy and Governance Review had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Loewen about what sets SPPG apart from other schools, his philosophy on teaching, and the most pressing policy issues in Canada.
PPGR: How do you see your role as Director at SPPG?
LOEWEN: I think the role of the Director is to identify the strategic strengths of the School and to think about how those strengths can be enhanced. The SPPG faculty represent an extraordinary source of expertise on a variety of policy areas. The Director spends a lot of time talking to people in the external community who want to consume that research in a practical way, to facilitate that information-sharing, and ultimately, to increase the impact of the School. I believe that SPPG is best served if the Director is finding ways to harness the research streams, energy, and knowledge that are already in the School and to do more to push that out into the public service and into public space.
PPGR: What do you uniquely bring to the role?
LOEWEN: I’m a political scientist by training, but I work in diverse fields. I’m an experimentalist as a matter of technique, which means that I believe that we can perform experiments in laboratories, in the field, and by other means, to learn about social and political life. I think I bring a lot of energy, a unique approach to research, and a certain ecumenism to the position. I bring a sense that professors and academics have something to say and that we should say it when the time comes. I believe that academics and policy practitioners have diverse expertise — the more we can share this knowledge by reaching communities that need it, the better we can design whole systems of policy and make small policy changes that have big effects.
PPGR: What sets SPPG apart from other public policy schools? What does an MPP at the University of Toronto distinctly offer to students?
LOEWEN: I think SPPG is uniquely positioned to be the best policy school in the country. It has an extremely strong graduate program, which is receiving over 600 applicants per year for 80 spots. It has no trouble attracting talented people, and it has created a very good pipeline of those people into the public service. It has good connections in Ottawa and it’s right beside Queen’s Park.
University of Toronto is a large university, with no match in Canada in size, but it’s also a remarkably de-centralized and lean place. It’s a very entrepreneurial institution. Changes can happen quickly, so there’s lots of room for energy, entrepreneurship and innovation. I think those traits characterize me, so the chance to work at SPPG at this point in its development really excites me. The founding director Mark Stabile got the School up to a really incredible place, and now we can start doing the things that we couldn’t do until all those fundamental building blocks were in place.
Strategically, SPPG is able to combine the resources from very strong internationally-ranked departments of economics, political science, sociology, and other professional departments including business. No other school in Canada can match that breadth and depth. Then, SPPG combines strong academics with professors of practice, with practitioners that have had impressive careers at the highest levels of government. Frankly, I don’t think there are many universities that can put those two pieces together the way SPPG does. Because of this range, we can credibly tell SPPG students that if they come here interested in five different areas of public policy, we can cover all of them.
PPGR: Can you share your vision for SPPG moving forward?
LOEWEN: SPPG graduates are prepared for opportunities in a broad spectrum of policy sectors, and we should match their diverse interests and skills by putting as many opportunities as possible in front of them. We should do this both to tap that potential and to broaden the impact of SPPG in Canada and around the world.
I think internationalizing, not only the in-school experience, but the post-SPPG experience of our graduates, is important. Right now, the School sees a majority of graduates going into the OPS, which is fantastic for the OPS, and we should be heartened that very smart students are finding and choosing that path. But if we could get to a place where 50 to 60 per cent of grads were going into the public service, and the other 40 to 50 per cent were going into business, to the OECD, to the UN, to the World Bank, and to think tanks in Canada and abroad, I’d be very happy.
I’d also be very happy if some subset of SPPG grads found themselves contributing to public life intellectually in Canada in a really engaged way. We have a paucity of original research coming out of think tanks in Canada, and there are many reasons for it, but it’s certainly not for a lack of talent. I think our graduates could play a really key role there.
PPGR: Will you be teaching in your new role at SPPG? How would you describe your teaching style?
LOEWEN: My teaching style depends on the level and format, and is constantly changing as I learn and evolve as a teacher — teaching is difficult!
When I teach graduate classes, typically they’re in seminar so they rely on people having read a lot. When it’s necessary for me to provide some macro-level context at the start, I do, but otherwise, I’m interested in exchange. In a professional program education, it’s really about teaching techniques and their application.
I will definitely be teaching at SPPG. My teaching load will be one graduate course at SPPG and one graduate course in the Department of Political Science. I don’t know which courses I’ll be teaching yet — it will partly depend on what colleagues are teaching and where the gaps are. I think I’d like to design and teach a new class on behavioural insights and experimentation in public policy, but we’ll have to see if there’s interest in and demand for that.
PPGR: From your perspective, what are the three most pressing public policy challenges in Canada today?
LOEWEN: I think we’re a complicated country that works pretty well, but that the most pressing problems are those related to existing trends that, over time, will exacerbate the regional nature of policymaking and of our economies.
Climate change is definitely there, and is challenging for many reasons. Responding to climate change is going to be expensive for the whole country, but a particularly difficult issue within this is the way the cost is different in different regions, geographies, and economies.
Second, I think Canada’s approach to population has been handled remarkably well, but that we should be aware of this question. Canada is puzzling because there’s not a country in the world that even approaches the diversity of ours and is not characterized by increasing degrees of ethnic conflagration. That said, little flashes of things like the niqab debate that occurred during the federal election last fall tell us that all is not well. Two-thirds of Canadians, undifferentiated among recent Canadians and Canadians of older standing, supported a ban on wearing a niqab while taking an oath at a citizenship ceremony or working in the public service. The uneven distribution of immigration, the short term demands that migration puts on an economy (despite the long term benefits), and the kind of migration that will be induced, not only by conflict, but eventually by climate change, all contribute to this issue.
Finally, there’s an increasing mismatch between what we expect government to provide in terms of access to healthcare through old age and what governments can do. Even if we don’t believe that people are going to start living much longer than 80 years, this is a very difficult and expensive problem for governments. But if you accept the possibility that all the actuarial tables are wrong, and that in the near future, young people today will have life expectancies of 120, then you have to accept that this will need to be addressed soon. Not only is this shift going to increase the fiscal burden, it’s going to change the nature of the way people live with each other.
PPGR: Can you share a bit about your personal life?
LOEWEN: I’m a family man. I live in Toronto with my wife, Yvette, and our young son, Wolfie, and we like the city a lot. Yvette is very involved in the arts and culture scene here, so we consume a lot of that. We live in Roncesvalles, and we really exist up and down our street, enjoying coffee shops and enjoying the parks. We’re very good friends with our neighbours.
I like to travel, give talks, and meet colleagues; I’ve had several projects in Europe and I had one going in Africa for a little while. In the last five years, I’ve done over a hundred thousand miles per year in flights, which is too many. You can imagine how much the carbon offsets would be… As much as possible, when I travel, my family comes with me. We also have a group of friends with whom we vacation in different places, a nice feature of being at this stage in your life — you find yourself doing all the things that you imagined adults do. I feel like a very lucky guy.