University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Serving the Public Interest

As the president and CEO of the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts, alumna Susan Urahn champions the global organization's core values in turbulent times.

Photo Courtesy Éireann Lorsung

Just as the world was withdrawing because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Susan Urahn’s career was blossoming. In March 2020, Urahn (B.A. ’81, Ph.D. ’89) was asked to lead a global research and public policy organization, the Pew Charitable Trusts, as its next president and CEO.

The job is a large one. Pew is an independent public charity that partners with a diverse array of donors and public and private organizations to provide data-driven solutions to improve public policy. The organization’s project areas include public opinion research; arts and culture; civic initiatives; and environmental, health, state, and consumer policy initiatives. Pew researches and analyzes data, develops implementation plans, and tailors its models to the specific needs of the organizations with which it works.

“When the board asked me to take this on, it was a real privilege,” Urahn says. “It’s an opportunity to pull [together] everything I’ve done in my entire career and help shepherd an institution I care about deeply through some challenging and turbulent times.”

Urahn is ideally situated to lead such an organization. Before joining Pew in 1994 in its planning and evaluation division, she worked for seven years as a legislative analyst in policy research and evaluation with the Minnesota House of Representatives—during which time she completed her doctoral studies at the U of M.

What appealed to Urahn most about her Ph.D. program in education policy and administration was its interdisciplinary nature. In addition to core courses on educational history and theory, she was able to follow her interests, which included courses in statistics, as well as policy research through an independent study with the Minnesota Higher Education Coordinating Board. Both excursions became part of the education that enables Urahn to run a multifaceted organization such as Pew.

“Working for the Minnesota House was a chance to move from doing policy analysis from the outside to being right there where the sausage gets made,” Urahn says. “It was a great opportunity to see how research and policy and politics all collide in the process.”

It was during her predoctoral fellowship with Educational Testing Service that Urahn first became connected to Pew. While she was there, a colleague put her in touch with Pew leaders who were seeking someone to conduct research and evaluation of different philanthropic strategies. “That was really appealing to me,” Urahn says. “I could jump in and figure out how to take the skills I had and apply them in different areas.”

Not long after joining Pew, where she helped evaluate all of the institution’s grants and Trusts-initiated projects, Urahn became its director from 1997 to 2000. Most recently, she became an executive vice president in 2012, leading all of Pew’s work on state policy, economics, and health care—then became chief program officer in 2016.

One of Urahn’s career highlights has been the research and assistance Pew provides to governments to advance fiscally sound, data-driven criminal justice policies and practices that protect public safety, ensure accountability, and reduce correctional populations and costs. “The work we’ve done for over a decade in corrections reform has been strongly bipartisan, and an example of the signature work that Pew does,” Urahn says. “It’s incremental, it’s concrete, it’s driven by facts, and I’m very proud of [it].”

Urahn notes that maintaining the rigorously nonpartisan, evidence-based work is increasingly challenging in the current political environment. “We have hyperpartisan politics, and sometimes people don’t care so much about science and facts,” Urahn says. “So you have to figure out how to hold on to our method, while also dealing with the pandemic and the new challenges that every institution in this country faces right now.”

Despite the one-two punch of the pandemic and partisanship, Urahn remains undeterred, committed to the core values that believe research really matters and that bringing it into robust policy discussions with different perspectives is essential for the well-being of the country. “Coming out at the end with something that is better is a good way to do business in this country,” Urahn says, “and if we can show that it can be done, I think we can make a contribution to strengthening the public’s trust in institutions.”

Steve Neumann is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.

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