With Political Scientist and Beauty Award Recipient Deondra Rose about her career, tips for success and the ethical obligation of scholars to help preserving democracy

Emilia Chiscop-Head, PhD

Deondra Rose is an Associate Professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy with secondary appointments in the Department of Political Science and the Department of History.  She is also the Director of Polis: Center for Politics and Co-director of the North Carolina Scholars Strategy Network (SSN).  Her research focuses on the effects of social and higher education policies on the American political landscape.

She is the author of Citizens by Degree: Higher Education Policy and the Changing Gender Dynamics of American Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2018), which examines the development of landmark U.S. higher education policies--including the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the Higher Education Act of 1965, and Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments--and their impact on the progress that women have made since the mid-twentieth century. 

You describe yourself in an interview, as a political scientist and political historian, particularly interested in higher education policies. How have you become what you are today?

Deondra Rose: If someone had told me that I would be a political scientist and a professor at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, I would have been taken by surprise. I was going to be a lawyer and I set foot on campus at the University of Georgia already knowing from the day one what I wanted to major in. So, I went through college very quickly and graduated in three years.

Being the first in my family to finish a four year degree – I was unsure about what college would hold. On the other hand, being from a family that values education, I felt very confident in pursuing an academic pathway and I had a solid sense of self and confidence.  When I look back to my early 20s when I moved to Minnesota to work on a campaign for governor, or shortly thereafter moving to New York state for graduate school, I'm really grateful for the powerful wind in my sails that my family offered.

The pathway to graduate school was a serendipitous one.  When I was submitting law school applications and requesting letters of support, two of my professors in separate departments pulled me aside and told me that they would be happy to write me letters for Law School, but that I should really consider getting a PhD. I was so flattered! The only people I knew who had gotten PhDs were people much later in their careers, perhaps they were in their 40s and 50s. So, these faculty members who were generous enough to share their experiences and their insight into an academic pathway really changed my life.

How hard was it to succeed in the Academia and research arena as a woman of color and as a recipient of the Beauty Pageant Award?

Deondra Rose: One of the activities I was engaged during college was participating in the Miss America scholarship organization. I was Miss University of Georgia in 2005. This was a preliminary to the Miss Georgia Pageant, which is a preliminary of the Miss America Scholarship program. Interestingly, another person I got to know during that time, was Danica Tisdale, who was the first black woman to win Miss Georgia. And she was a PhD student at Emory University and I got to know her through the pageant program. And, again this idea of pursuing a PhD at that point, immediately after my undergraduate studies became a more realistic possibility.  I met so many accomplished and inspiring friends through the pageant system, but people are often thunderstruck when they find out about that part of my biography.  I’m always amused by the cool points that this tidbit can win me.  But, I was definitely a nerd from the beginning and not a beauty queen who decided to shift gears.

The surprise from others comes because of their biases. Some of us expect that nerds need to be ugly and the beautiful women may not be as smart.

Deondra Rose: These are socially constructed and deeply ingrained stereotypes that are hard to shake. Oftentimes we rely on stereotypes to help us grapple with the world’s complexity and the fact that we have so much information coming at us at all times; in some respects, we need these kinds of tools to make sense of things. But I have always been struck by how powerful other people’s assumptions, stereotypes, and small-mindedness can be in creating barriers that prevent people from doing daring things. Or just being comfortable in their skin. Without a doubt, having a mother, grandmother, and aunt who convinced me early on that I could do anything and that other people’s biases weren’t my problem to solve opened so many doors for me. I’m convinced that knowledge and skills gained from atypical experiences can be superpowers: they can provide knowledge, skills and lessons that provide an additional resource for approaching challenges. My work as a researcher, teacher, and team member has been directly shaped by the lessons I’ve taken from a diverse range of experiences—from politics, to pageantry, to all the jobs I had before going to the graduate school…

              Lessons which we cannot learn from the books, obviously.

Deondra Rose: But they can help you write books! The value of having an outsider's perspective can be immense…

I know that you study how policies in higher education impacted communities and minorities. How have higher education policies impacted your life and career?

Deondra Rose: I think higher education policies are some of the most important programs that we have had, historically, particularly when it comes to supporting socio economic mobility and democratic inclusion. I'm a proud product of excellent public schools starting out in Shaker Heights, Ohio and then in Georgia’s Gwinnett County. I had this powerful foundational education as a young person that has yielded dividends over time. When I made my way to college, it was a state level education policy that made such a difference for me: the HOPE Scholarship in Georgia was a phenomenal program that provided the state’s high school graduates with full tuition and support to attend college in-state if they achieved a certain grade point average. This program made it possible for me to complete my college degree with no debt—something especially valuable coming from a background where I wasn't sure about how to pay for college. Now as a political scientist, I study federal higher education policies and their significance, not only for educational attainment but also for democracy. As society continues to seek effective approaches for creating a more just, equitable, and inclusive society, higher education—and education, more broadly—will be a critical component to achieving those goals.

“It's critical to recognize education as an important building block of democracy”

What does your research shows so far?

Deondra Rose: My work shows that federal higher education programs that have expanded college access for students from historically excluded or otherwise underrepresented groups have also expanded access to knowledge, skills and experiences that tend to promote higher levels of civic and political engagement. When we're talking about the value of higher education, it is easy to focus narrowly on the economic aspects – the investment in the future in terms of workforce development, which is, of course, a big part of why so many individuals and families make such significant investments in higher education. Additionally it's crucial that we recognize education as an important building block of democracy. Colleges and universities can play an important role in helping young people to understand the political landscape and how they can make meaningful contributions to democratic governance. In the context of the many challenges to democracy that we face today, I think that higher education is more important than ever. My favorite example of this is the work that students, faculty members, and staff members are doing to have tough conversations and to incorporate data and evidence into discussions about complex topics. While many, rightfully, lament the impact that polarization is having on our ability to talk across differences, higher educational institutions can take the lead in promoting meaningful, generative, and potentially transformative discourse.

How does your research contribute to the development of evidence-based policy? 

Deondra Rose: A few years ago when my colleague Professor Nick Carnes and I were co-directors of the North Carolina Scholars Strategy Network, we met with lawmakers and gained a better sense of the barriers that make it difficult for them to connect with scholars and access the evidence that can inform policies. Many of these barriers had to do with limits on resources like staff capacity and the differing paces of legislative and academic work. How we responded to these barriers led to the work that I've been doing these last couple of years with students in my Political Analysis of Policy course. We have tried to find ways to help lawmakers connect with research at a faster pace.

What researchers could do more to educate political actors so that they can base their decisions in research evidence?

Deondra Rose: There are things that we can do to make our research more accessible. Such as summarizing research in a one page memo that is jargon free, helping to convey the results of your study to a general audience. Giving people opportunity to become familiar with your work and what you're doing, with a memo, policy brief or op ed is really valuable. The use of infographics and social media are also eye catching, informative and easily accessible mechanisms. The idea is to create a lot of invitations for people to engage with your research and to facilitate it by making your research increasingly accessible and legible.

Yes, and you mentioned that the Center for Politics is not only a place of having nice conversations on politics, but also for translational research…

Deondra Rose: The Policy Lab, which is connected to Polis, started in the context of the discussions we had at SSN. After our meetings with policymakers they started to send us questions that were not quite aligned with our research timelines. So, we thought that our undergraduates can do research, learn how to craft memos and produce information that can be useful to policymakers. Since 2019, our students have crafted memos that provide background information, best practices or key debates that lawmakers should be paying attention to. If the question is “How do we retain teachers in North Carolina?”, students would look into what other states or other countries are doing and offer vignettes from cases that can be especially helpful for policymakers who are trying to get a sense of what the possibilities are. Students also add information about experts in the state on whatever the particular topic is. The students have done phenomenal work over the last few years, and they get better every semester.

Should policy research be better aligned to policy and political agenda?

Deondra Rose: One of the defining characteristics of the Academy, especially for scholars, is that you have autonomy over what you study. Oftentimes the latitude to study what you want is part of what attracts so many people to this profession. However, by contributing to the generation of data, facts, and insight, we contribute in a powerful and essential way to democracy and the functioning of our society. In order to try to repair our terribly polarized politics, I think that higher education is going to have to take a bigger role in recognizing the significance of our research to the political and public discourse. Ultimately the mission of higher education is to enhance our understanding, and most will agree that this mission is pivotal for our advancement in the 21st century. 

So, avoiding to engage in conversations or projects that can be easily labeled as political, makes it hard to enhance our understanding and fulfill the mission of higher education?

Deondra Rose:  I am a political historian and I study higher education and higher education policy as important aspects of social and political development. I've been doing work on historically black colleges and universities whose history never shied away from politics or tough conversations. For HBCUs, knowledge and insight are seen as critical components of public life and the functioning of our society. Embracing that attitude has had important outcomes for our democracy. Nevertheless, people can actively avoid anything that seems political – because politics has such negative connotations. I’ve learned to never tell someone in an Uber or Lyft that I’m a political scientist because if I do, I’ll hear everything they hate about politics.  But I think if we do a better job of articulating what the stakes are in terms of our political landscape, the distribution of power…..we can better reconcile different ways of seeing things and find common ground. Research and scholarship are critical to that.

Where is the line between serving policy and society through research on one side and being an advocate on the other side? And how do you navigate it?

Deondra Rose: There are certainly places where the lines between research and advocacy can get blurred. It is important to recognize that these are two separate things. Research is systematic, driven by data and evidence. While some researchers make policy recommendations, others don’t.  Advocates wear a different hat. While they can also invoke and incorporate data and evidence-based insights into their appeals, their work is committed to recommending or supporting a particular course of action.

In my work I go where data take me. I ask questions, I collect data, and I report on those findings.  And there are some instances where the findings do not confirm or affirm the perspective that a particular stakeholder might hope. But my job as a researcher is to be clear eyed about my job, which is to design and execute studies that seek to answer a research question using careful, systematic research methods. My job is also to conduct that study in a way that's as careful and ethical as possible and then to report those findings, whatever they are.

“It is important when conducting research not only to exert care as we engage with others, but also as we engage with ourselves.”

What other ethical challenges you face in your work?

Deondra Rose: Social scientists often engage with people who share their personal information and their experiences with us. We must treat such data with the utmost care, respect and caution and apply the fundamental skills we are trained in: preserving anonymity and confidentiality, making sure that we aren’t exposing human subjects to deception or traumatizing experiences, reporting true and accurate data. We need to take care not to make over generalizations about populations that we describe and not to frame identity groups in ways that are careless or disrespectful. In doing this fascinating research on the impact that HBCUs have had on educational access and democracy, I’ve had the privilege of talking to hundreds of people who generously shared their experiences. Coming to this kind of research with a level of humility, respect and care is really important. I’d also say that being mindful of how you engage in self-care while conducting research is a part of research ethics that I have become increasingly attuned to. There's some research that can be pretty emotionally intense. I have been especially inspired by the work of Dr. Ajenai Clemmons, a professor at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, who earned her PhD at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy has done extraordinary research on policing while also helping the research community think seriously about how scholars can surround themselves with strong support systems and connect with essential resources as they conduct research on complex and sensitive topics. Ajenai’s work has helped me to gain a greater appreciation of the importance of exerting care as we engage with others when conducting research, but also as we bring ourselves to that research.

Can you share some tools and resources you use in your research?

Deondra Rose: For qualitative work, I use the coding software, NVivo. I like the power of the software to really help you ensure that your results are processed effectively. I also like to hand code everything, so I start by coding on my own and then using the software. For transcriptions I love REV.

What advice you have for your researchers to succeed in their careers?

Deondra Rose: Finding mentors of high integrity, in advanced stages of their career, who can help you think through important questions or difficult situations is key. Similarly, finding models of excellent research, from scholars you admire can be very helpful. Working as a research assistant for Professor Suzanne Mettler, my doctoral advisor and a truly extraordinary scholar, was one of the most valuable experiences that I had as a young researcher. I had the opportunity to see how my mentor designed a study from the ground up, how she crafted research questions, how she engaged with existing literature, and how she analyzed her data. I saw, firsthand, the highest standards of rigor and ethics in practice.  It was a master class in how to do social science research, from start to finish.

I also think that not being afraid of being yourself is very important for success as a researcher. It's very easy in the Academy, to get a sense of what's valued or what you “have to do” to be successful. If you are pretending to be someone you're not, you'll likely be a second-rate imitation of someone else. It is important to remember that if a department, lab, or organization decides to recruit you, they're going to want you for your best work and, I believe, for your unique perspective, and the unique contributions that only you can bring to your work. Giving them the opportunity to see you shine and deliver your best is critical.  

If you’re a researcher who is interested in having a direct impact on policymaking, I would also recommend trying to find a community of researchers who share that interest. Being unapologetic in recognizing the significance of what we do for society and not being shy about engaging in those conversations as early and as often as you feel comfortable is so important.

Is there anything that you think universities could do to foster this ethical environment in research as a work environment which promotes integrity, inclusiveness, diversity and innovation?

Deondra Rose: I am a historical institutionalist, so I spend a great deal of time thinking about how institutions have helped to generate particular types of culture in the past and how it can promote a future where all people can thrive. Creating policies and institutional structures that foster those goals and mechanisms for achieving them is essential. One thing we can do is to celebrate ethical research work and scholars who operate with the highest integrity so that they can inspire others. By doing so, institutions can signal that people who go the extra mile are respected and valued. Participating in the Research Week at Duke were people of so many backgrounds engaged in important conversations on critical topics, such as research and social responsibility, was for me inspiring.

This interview is part of a series of interviews with renowned scholars, scientists and influential leaders invited to share their outstanding work and views on topics related to research integrity. 


Read all the articles in the Research Interviews Series:

Hans J.  Van Miegroet

Paul Modrich

Francis Keefe

Carmelo Milano

Jennifer Lansford

Paula McClain

Brandon Garrett

Christian Simon

Patrick Charbonneau

Nimmi Ramanujam

Nicolas Cassar

Ada Gregory

Adrian Bejan

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong