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Meet Leela Fernandes, new director of the Jackson School of International Studies

September 27, 2020

Leela Fernandes, Jackson School Director
Leela Fernandes outside the Jackson School, September 2020. Photo by UW Photography/Dennis Wise

Leela Fernandes, an internationally recognized scholar and author on democratic politics and inequality with a focus on contemporary India, officially assumed the directorship role of the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington on July 1, 2020.

A professor of gender studies and political science with a STEM background, Director Fernandes joins us from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Prior, she served on the faculty of Rutgers University, New Brunswick and Oberlin College.

We recently asked her a few questions about what she’s looking forward to about leading the Jackson School, and what matters to her in the world of international studies.

Congratulations on being named the new director of the Jackson School at the University of Washington. What impressed you most about the School during the search process? The Jackson School has an impressive national reputation and has played a historic role in shaping the field of international studies. The School is also unique in the way it has combined a focus on public service and policy issues on the one hand, with a depth of understanding of specific countries and regions, on the other. The School exemplifies the importance of understanding that the study of concrete places and the specificities of culture, identity and history are critical in effectively addressing the crises and challenges that face the world. Big challenges such as climate change, for example, cannot be adequately addressed without understanding the local political dynamics and institutional constraints that shape and constrain the implementation of solutions to these challenges. Moreover, effective solutions are often best developed by drawing on the knowledge of local communities and specific contexts. Global policy frameworks and models often falter when they are not built from an understanding of how different places and nations actually work on the ground.

You are starting this role at a time when global issues are ever more complex due to COVID-19. Can you see any lessons from the pandemic for International Studies? The pandemic has both brought intense challenges for international studies (given the impact on travel) and underlined the significance of the field. Viruses such as COVID-19 do not observe the territorial borders of nation-states. They reveal our interconnectedness, highlight the need for international cooperation and intensify the negative consequences of a lack of global coordination. The pandemic also underlines the need to study and address persistent and intensifying inequalities both within and between nations. The concept of “social distancing,” for example, contains deep assumptions about the privilege of space. Poorer communities and less-privileged nations often have densely concentrated populations and living arrangements. This is also acutely true for liminal populations such as refugees and migrant communities. COVID-19 has also unsettled the naturalization of various forms of segregation that shape the lives of communities marked by inequalities such as race, class and caste. In this sense, as much as the virus does not observe the borders between nations it also does not adhere to the internal borders within nations. This also provides a new way for more privileged social groups to personally experience their dependence on the labor of workers in sectors ranging from farm-work to grocery stores to transportation.

You bring with you experience in leadership roles in institution-wide initiatives. What do you feel is important when addressing diversity, equity and inclusion? What does it mean to you? Institutions of higher education in the United States have made progress but also still have a long way to go in addressing diversity, equity and inclusion. There is well-established research that has shown that diversity improves the quality of work in organizations and institutions. This is particularly true for the quality of liberal arts education and for any institution or organization with a public mission. In the case of international studies,  diversity, equity and inclusion are actually at the heart of the field. The study of citizenship rights, equality, democratic norms, institutional accountability and inequality are central subjects of inquiry. The institutionalized spaces of the field should, in my mind, reflect the subjects of study that the field is engaged with. Furthermore, international studies can also help U.S. institutions move beyond U.S.-centric conceptions of diversity that often miss the complexities of citizenship, national origin and migration.

You are the first female director of the Jackson School. What does that mean to you? Such milestones are always significant even as we hope for the day that they become unremarkable. I consider myself to be starting my work with the School as a feminist leader. Feminism for me is an ethical project. It rests on an assumption that projects of social change are only ultimately transformative if they are executed with clear ethical principles and practices. This is never a perfect endeavor but a foundation for action. I hope to bring this kind of feminist vision to my work with the School.

What are your first priorities for the Jackson School? The world is currently being shaped by major cross-cutting crises and significant geopolitical shifts. The Jackson School has the breadth and depth necessary for developing effective responses and training new generations of leaders. School faculty and staff have tremendous reservoirs of knowledge. I look forward to working with all members of the School in this endeavor in ways that can engage with broad public audiences both in the U.S. and internationally.