Faculty Spotlight: “I Was Born Questioning”

Batten’s Jeanine Braithwaite has retired after more than a decade of encouraging students to interrogate the status quo.

Jeanine Braithwaite
Jeanine Braithwaite, who retired from the Batten School this fall after teaching policy for more than a decade.

When Jeanine Braithwaite first told her parents that she had started studying Russian, they were horrified. 

It was bad enough that their daughter, an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, had decided to major in foreign affairs instead of biology. Russian was the last straw. “They went into a complete tailspin, because now not only was I going to be unemployed, but I was also going to be learning ‘that communist language,’” said the recently retired Batten professor.

But Braithwaite wasn’t interested in doing what was expected of her. “I was born questioning,” she said. “At that time, there was, to borrow a phrase, ‘the great Satan’ out there, and it was the Soviet Union. I wanted to go see if it was really the evil empire that we were being told it was.”

Braithwaite retired from the Batten School this fall, after teaching policy there for more than a decade. Her commitment to skepticism and critical thinking — along with her love of mentoring committed policy students — has in many ways defined her career. 

Just as she had hoped, Braithwaite traveled to Russia several years after that conversation with her parents to complete her dissertation research, and she would return there 28 more times. 

During those sojourns, she encountered “many decent people trapped in the soul-destroying totalitarianism of communist party control,” she said. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Braithwaite also worked in Ukraine, Armenia, Hungary, Romania and Kosovo for the World Bank.

“It led me to think a lot about what is now called ‘governance’ and how to set up systems that would help people,” she continued.

Braithwaite went on to spend a large portion of her career designing those systems, working to bring people in developing countries out of poverty. As a senior economist at the World Bank, she created a range of global development programs, including a conditional cash transfer initiative for poor children in Turkey.

At the time, cash transfers were fairly controversial. “A lot of people said, ‘You can't give poor people money because they're just going to drink and drug it away.’ Or ‘Poor women are going to get pregnant just to get the cash transfer,’’” she said.

But Braithwaite stood firm, arguing that scientific studies did not support these claims.

“There are many cases of countries trying to induce fertility by giving cash, and they still can’t make their citizens have kids,” she pointed out. “Poor people are not stupid.”

Braithwaite’s path to Batten was also unconventional. When she learned that a new school devoted to public policy had been established at her alma mater, in 2008, she cold called the University to offer to help Batten in some way. That led her to a part-time teaching gig at the Batten School for the first class of students in 2009.

She was taken with Batten students from the start. “The motivation for Batten students is my motivation, which is that we want to solve the world’s most wicked or difficult problems,” she said. “We want to make the world a better place, which is what public policy is all about.”

Jeanine Braithwaite
Braithwaite giving remarks during a retirement celebration with Batten faculty and staff in Dean Ian Solomon's (left) garden.

The following year, Braithwaite switched to consulting at the World Bank and began teaching at Batten full time, inspired by the opportunity to shape the future not just through policies, but also through a new generation of policymakers.

“Prof J.,” as her students affectionately called her, quickly became popular at Batten. Braithwaite hosted dinners at her house to build community, helped students make professional connections, and kept her courses focused on the practical skills policymakers need to find success.

“Despite Jeanine’s extraordinary work as a researcher and policymaker, she is best known for her transformational teaching and mentoring activities at Batten and across UVA,” said Ian Solomon, dean of the Batten School. “I hope that she is sustained by the knowledge that many people are out there now, in the real world, making a real difference with the skills and values that she helped them develop.”  

Braithwaite was especially passionate about her small and selective independent study. The class met at the inconvenient hours of 4-6 pm on Fridays in the basement of Garrett Hall — to ensure that participants were truly committed, she said.

In those sessions, students learned to perform rigorous data analysis, poring over household surveys designed to measure poverty in areas across the world. “You can’t say anything meaningful about poverty, or target programs to poor people, without data analytics,” Braithwaite said. “You can’t get rid of a problem if you can’t measure it.”

Many of those students also collaborated with Braithwaite to conduct on-the-ground research in Turkey, South Africa, Botswana and other countries. 

One of her former research assistants, Cameron Haddad — who now works as a data analyst for the research agency Fraym, serving clients with a global development focus — said he remains deeply grateful for his experience working closely with Braithwaite. Their most significant collaboration was on a study that explored how poor people use healthcare services in South Africa.

“Prof J. recognized how important it is to go to countries that are not necessarily in the Global North, to put yourself in situations where you have to use a foreign language, and to get real experience in the field,” he said. “She encouraged me to push myself out of my comfort zone, maybe because that's something she's done herself in her career.”

Braithwaite also taught Batten’s Applied Policy Project course, which offers students the opportunity to solve thorny policy problems on behalf of real-world clients. Her goal in that class — as in all her classes, she said — was to draw on her own policymaking experience to help students think critically and for themselves.

“Developing countries are facing multiple challenges, and there's no book out there that says, ‘This is what you should do.’ You have to come up with the answers yourself,” Braithwaite said. “And that is exactly what you do for an Applied Policy Project. You take a policy problem that nobody solved before, and you have to think up a solution.”  

Now that she’s retired, Braithwaite is focused on relaxing: spending time with her family, continuing the piano lessons she started during the pandemic, taking long rides with her husband on their Harley Davidson motorcycles and playing poker and bridge.

But her hard work on her classes, research and policies has given rise to a legacy that is both lasting and far-reaching. More than 5 million children in Turkey benefited from the conditional cash transfer program she helped to develop, and a new poverty map of Sub-Saharan Africa that she prompted former UVA engineering student Kamwoo Lee to create will serve as a valuable resource for policymakers looking to create targeted programs for poor people in the future.

As a professor, Braithwaite said, she aimed to help students not only think critically, but also think bigger — to believe in the potential for sweeping change.

“Many policy problems have been solved, but there are many more that need to be solved,” she said. “There are 7 billion people in this world. Half of them live in poverty. I believe we have the capacity to do better.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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