Susan Yackee: Bridging a Divided Society

By Jessica Steinhoff | Photography By Hillary Schave, Shot on location at Madison Youth Arts Center (MYArts)

Has Susan Yackee hired doppelgangers to carry out her plans? One has to wonder when considering how much the director of UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs has achieved in recent years. This includes creating the first La Follette School Policy Poll and the Wisconsin Main Street Agenda Project, a partnership with Wisconsin Public Radio and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that hosted public forums where citizens asked La Follette faculty about health care, inflation, climate policies and other issues.

The answer is no, according to the colleagues helping her bring these plans to life. They nominated her for Women to Watch.

“Having your team recognize you in this way, it doesn’t get much better than that,” says Yackee. This from a woman whose accolade list includes several awards for exceptional UW-Madison faculty, a Collins-Bascom Professorship and the Midwest Political Science Association’s Herbert Simon Award, one of the highest honors for a public administration scholar.

One of Yackee’s most valuable contributions involves making America civil again, especially when debating controversial issues. She teaches undergraduate and graduate students how to have a productive policy discussion with people who oppose their views. It’s the focus of a new course she’ll teach in the public policy undergrad major she’s helping UW-Madison develop after launching two popular undergrad certificate programs.

“The course focuses on how we can move public policy issues forward — even during polarized times — using knowledge about group dynamics, business negotiation and more.”

Under Yackee’s leadership, the size of La Follette’s faculty and staff has doubled, and in four years it has gone from offering two undergrad classes to nearly two dozen that serve more than 1,000 students. The growth is so fast that the school needs a new building, making fundraising one of her goals for 2024.

Another goal is a new program connecting state lawmakers with university faculty to answer legislators’ policy questions.

“Our faculty will go to the Capitol and have conversations in a more casual setting,” she says. “It’s about asking lawmakers how we can … provide evidence to inform their decision-making.”

Yackee also intends to continue teaching the leadership seminar for Wisconsin Women in Government, a nonprofit that gives women tools to advance their careers in the public sector.

“I want to include new skills I’ve learned for facilitating civil discourse,” she says. “Helping these women succeed is a true calling for me.”

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