Getting to Know Dean Maria Cancian

Maria Cancian became the Dean of Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy in February 2019. Here she shares some of her views on public policy, how she hopes to lead our school and a little bit about herself:

Q: What is your top priority for your first few months as Dean?

Dean Cancian: I am excited to be Dean of the McCourt School because of the outstanding faculty, staff and students, and the strong ties between McCourt and other institutions, both at Georgetown and beyond. The quality and scope of research and teaching, and the engagement of our students and faculty and staff, is truly impressive.

The question is how best to leverage these strengths, and the great resources offered by our supporters and partners, to expand our reach and impact. How will we maximize our contributions to addressing the critical challenges we face nationally and globally? My first priority in the next few months is to engage with the McCourt community and our partners on campus and off, to listen and learn more about the issues and opportunities, and to develop a shared vision of our future.

Q: You are an economist by training, and your research focuses on the intersection of public policy and family wellbeing. What motivated you to study this critical area of social policy?

Dean Cancian: Families and public institutions shape the opportunities available to each of us to develop, to address our own needs and to contribute to the community. We sometimes think of government as the “public” sphere and the family as “private” but they are fundamentally interdependent. Our expectations about what constitutes a family, and how families should function, shape our policies — obviously in the case of, for example, child support or child welfare policy, but also in the case of policies such as taxation, education, and income support. I have always been interested in how public policies shape the context in which families function and how the opportunities and incentives to marry, to have children, and to work, vary over time and for different groups of people.

Q. You received your M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan. What was your favorite class in graduate school?

Dean Cancian: That is a hard question to answer — because so many of the classes are “favorite” in hindsight, but many were such a challenge at the time! I particularly enjoyed my coursework in econometrics, labor economics and public finance. Probably my favorite class was Public Finance taught by Professor Ted Bergstrom — which may have been the first class in which I read George Akerlof’s paper on the Market for Lemons.

Q: Can you tell us about your views on public policy training — the importance of it, what you see as its future?

Dean Cancian: Given the complex and dynamic challenges we face nationally and globally, I think public policy training should provide students with the tools and technical expertise to be able to evaluate and weigh the evidence on policy alternatives — across a range of areas. Many of the most pressing issues we face today were not on the horizon when today’s policy analysts were trained, but the most effective leaders in the field are able to apply the analytic tools and principles to new problems. And, as a professional degree, public policy training also needs to be grounded in practical experience, to develop leaders who can work effectively across difference, and are confident in their understanding of, and commitment to, ethical practice.

Q: What drew you to the McCourt School and Georgetown?

Dean Cancian: The quality of the faculty, staff and students, and the opportunity to further the reach and impact of a great policy school in the nation’s capital at this critical time, were the main draws. I believe the McCourt School can have a great impact on the capacity for effective collective action for the common good — given its resources, location, and the stature and mission of Georgetown University. I am honored and excited to work on expanding the scope and effectiveness of our efforts.

Q. You have experience in public policy across many sectors — federal and state government, nonprofits, academia — what career advice would you give to McCourt students who will soon be in the job market?

Dean Cancian: Wherever you land, make the most of the opportunities to learn, and to get out of your comfort zone. Often the best next job is not the one with the most impressive title, but the one that provides colleagues and mentors that will help you continue to develop professionally and find the best long term fit. I have been lucky to love almost every job I have had. But, typically, some of the best parts were unexpected — opportunities to work with new people, and to learn new things that were not immediately apparent when I first applied.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What is something about you that might surprise McCourters?

Dean Cancian: This is my third move to Washington. I came right after college to work in the Research Department of the World Bank, then I returned to join the Obama Administration, and now to come to Georgetown. Each time I was with my husband. But the first time my two daughters had not yet been born; the second time one was here working at a DC think tank but the other was on the West Coast; this time we are happy to have both nearby — in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Q: What is your favorite book?

Dean Cancian: I keep coming back to Marilynne Robinson’s series Gilead/Home/Lila. They are beautifully written books, they show the importance of perspective, and they challenge the reader to think about theology and morality in a very down to earth way. Then there are the books that are a harder read but really stay with you — like “A Mercy,” by Toni Morrison, or “The Book of Aron,” by Jim Shepard.

Q: We hear you are an avid cyclist! Do you plan to keep up with this hobby now that you live in Washington?

Dean Cancian: Absolutely! I have been enjoying commuting to the Hilltop by bike — especially now that I have found a route that avoids the beautiful-but-bumpy cobblestone streets of Georgetown!