Kelly Brownell Named Dean of Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy

Kelly Brownell, the James Rowland Angell Professor of Psychology at Yale University and a leading authority on public policies to enhance nutrition and combat obesity, will become the next dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke President Richard H. Brodhead and Provost Peter Lange announced Wednesday.

Brownell, 61, will begin his new position on July 1. He succeeds Bruce Kuniholm, the Sanford School’s founding dean, who will be returning to the faculty after serving first as director (2005-2009) and then as dean.

The appointment follows an international search led by Elizabeth Frankenberg, professor of public policy and sociology and the school’s associate dean for academic programs.

Named for Terry Sanford, the former Duke president and North Carolina governor and senator, the Sanford School offers wide-ranging programs on child and family policy, national security, international development and many other issues facing society. The public policy major is one of the most popular among Duke undergraduates and its master’s in public policy is ranked among the country’s top 10 policy analysis programs.

“Kelly Brownell will make a perfect leader for a school dedicated to using knowledge to make a difference in the world,” Brodhead said. “A world-class researcher, he has established himself as the major public voice on obesity—one of the world’s most rapidly emerging issues—and has been an influential policy advisor at city, state and national levels. A devoted graduate mentor and undergraduate teacher, he will keep the Sanford School strong on campus while building bridges to the larger society.” 

At Yale, Brownell also serves as professor of epidemiology and public health and as director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. In 2006, Time magazine named him as being among “the world’s 100 most influential people … whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.” The magazine cited Brownell’s role in raising public awareness on the relationship between unhealthy foods and childhood obesity.

“In Kelly Brownell we have a new dean ready to take the Sanford School to the next level after the superb leadership of Bruce Kuniholm,” Lange said. “Kelly has an extraordinary record as a researcher while also being deeply committed to translating his findings into meaningful public policy to improve the lives of people. He understands the deeply interdisciplinary nature of that effort and recognizes how Sanford can be positioned to expand its impact. Kelly’s combination of achievement, ambition for the school and great good nature promise a bright future.”

Brownell has advised the White House, members of Congress, governors, world health and nutrition organizations and media leaders on issues of nutrition, obesity and public policy. He was a contributor to the 2012 HBO documentary “The Weight of the Nation” and has shared his expertise on newspaper op-ed pages and in other public forums.

Writing about “big sodas” in The Atlantic in June, for example, Brownell said “profit margins on these beverages are enormous -- 90 percent, as compared to, for example, 10 percent for produce. And profits increase as people buy bigger portions. The additional cost for the soda companies and restaurants to serve larger sizes may be mere cents for a larger cup and the extra liquid. Consumers are willing to pay much more than these few cents. The companies cash in. Consumers lose.”

Even as he has engaged in public policy debates, Brownell has been a leader within the academic community. He was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine in 2006 and has received numerous awards and honors for his work. These include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association, the Graduate Mentoring Award from Yale, the James McKeen Cattell Award from the New York Academy of Sciences and the Distinguished Scientific Award for the Applications of Psychology from the American Psychological Association.

“The committee wanted to find a dean who is an outstanding scholar, but also actively engaged in important policy debates,” said search committee chair Frankenberg. “Kelly combines those things, and in addition brings tremendous energy and creativity, as well as rich experience with undergraduate and graduate education.”

Brownell has served in a number of leadership roles at Yale, including master of Silliman College and chair of the psychology department.

He has published 15 books and more than 350 scientific articles and chapters. He has served as president of several national organizations, including the Society of Behavioral Medicine, the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy and the Division of Health Psychology of the American Psychological Association.

“Sanford is a world-class school in a world-class university. The faculty and students work on many of the world's most pressing issues, and do so with ingenuity, commitment and passion,” Brownell said. “I am impressed with how the school is woven into the fabric of Duke by virtue of its strong connections with other schools, institutes and programs. This creates innovation and new approaches to key problems. Sanford is also highly successful in its educational mission; there are strong programs, taught by committed faculty, at doctoral, masters and undergraduate levels. 

“It is a great honor for me to join the Duke community and to work with faculty, students and staff around the university to help harness what is unique about Duke in the service of improving the world,” he added.

Brownell, the father of three, is a bluegrass musician who plays in a band called The Road Brothers.