John Jackson ’67 always dreamed of being a statesman. Entering Yale as a young man, he looked to the example of his great-grandfather, a career diplomat, hoping to follow in his footsteps. Although Jackson ultimately took a different path, serving in the marines during the Vietnam War and then building a career working for pharmaceutical companies, his passion for the field of diplomacy and international affairs never left him. In 2009, he decided to act on it. Through the Liana Foundation, a charitable organization he founded with his wife, Jackson gave the University $50 million for the express purpose of establishing an institute at Yale for the study of international relations.

“We felt that strengthening the international relations and international studies efforts at Yale was something that was important given the world situation,” Jackson told the News after the gift was announced.

And so began the journey of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, an addition to campus that brought Yale into the matrix of globally-oriented and policy-focused educational institutions and reflects how the field has adapted to contemporary geopolitical realities.

According to Jackson student Seyward Darby GRD ’13, the Institute’s very name speaks to a newer conception of what such programs are studying.

“[It’s] ‘international relations’ versus ‘global affairs,’” she said. “I think that reflects an idea of the field moving away from nations or states to more non-state actors.”

James “Jim” Levinsohn, Jackson’s director, said in an email that the description “sounds accurate” to him.

Many other elite universities are home to long-established schools concerned with the same field, but Jackson was created in a different world than its peers. One of the first schools of international affairs was Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, set up in 1919. By the 1930s, other universities began setting up their own schools of policy and global affairs: Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs was founded in 1930; Harvard’s Graduate School of Public Administration, now known as the John F. Kennedy School of Government, came into being a few years later in 1936; and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) was founded in 1946. These schools take slightly different approaches, but all aim to develop public and international leadership. However, prior to 2009, while students could earn an academic international relations degree through the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, Yale lacked a comparable program.

Then we got Jackson. The Institute ushered in its first group of students in the 2010–12 school year, and the first cohort to spend two full years of study in Jackson’s Master in Arts in International Relations, which has since been renamed the Master in Arts in Global Affairs, graduated last May. This May, the first class of Yale College students enrolled in the Global Affairs major, an undergraduate program administered by Jackson, will graduate.

“It’s great that Yale has joined the effort to train students for careers in public service,” said Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School. “It makes for much more informed public policy.”

Ian Shapiro GRD ’83 LAW ’87, the director of the MacMillan Center, said that pre-Jackson programs in international affairs at Yale lacked focus or a clear identity. Shapiro credits Levinsohn with revamping the program. Levinsohn, a highly regarded economist whom the University had hoped to lure to the faculty for several years, was slated to start job at the School of Management when the Jackson gift came through. Yale now asked him to look at another opportunity: guiding a new initiative.

By the time Jackson opened its doors in 2010, Levinsohn had taken the reins.

The program he directs is among the most rapidly evolving on campus — and the most ambitious. “In five years, I hope and expect that we’ll be running one of the best ‘schools’ of global affairs in the world,” Levinsohn said.

For now, students concur that Jackson’s small class size, relatively minimal requirements and lack of designated concentrations mean that its graduate program offers a more flexible model of study than those at a number of more traditional peer schools.

Rachel Bergenfield GRD ’13, who worked for non-governmental organizations prior to enrolling in Jackson’s graduate program, enthusiastically praised the Institute’s flexibility. She said her experience in the professional world showed her that many areas in which Jackson students hope to work lie at the intersection of multiple disciplines — access to Yale’s wealth of knowledge, she continued, makes Jackson graduates better “interpreters” of the different approaches and languages used in fields outside their own.

While many of its peer institutions are independent “schools,” Jackson is an “institute.” This means it lacks a campus or tenured faculty to call its own. But for students, this potential demerit translates to the opportunity to draw from other departments and schools on Yale’s campus, as well as Jackson’s Senior Fellows program.

Unlike programs such as SIPA’s, in which students select a “track” of study from a list of set choices and complete extensive requirements, Jackson allows students to design their own concentration of study around particular interests, drawing on classes and professors throughout the University. This distinguishes the program for applicants like Darby, who described herself as “not fitting into boxes well.”

Though students in the first two classes at Jackson followed the same requirements that had existed in the original international relations program, administrators changed the requirements after receiving feedback that labeled them outdated. Now the entire cohort takes three courses — in economics, historical analysis and quantitative skills — together and students are then free to take whatever courses they desire.

But the flexibility has a flip side. Ben Widness GRD ’12 said that because students can almost completely design their own track, personal initiative is crucial, and students who did not immediately take responsibility struggled to determine what they wanted out of Jackson.

Jackson’s flexibility is facilitated in large part by the program’s small size. It is composed of between 55 and 60 students, Levinsohn said. This stands in contrast to the approximately 1,000 at Harvard’s Kennedy School and 900 at Columbia’s SIPA.

Ronald Davis, a SIPA student, tempered his praise of his school’s diversity of representation and of thought by adding that his required classes tend to be of lower quality than his other classes because of their size.

Shapiro said Jackson was developed with a “quality over quantity approach,” adding the Yale Law School is an example of the kind of small, competitive high-caliber program Jackson hopes to eventually resemble.

“What is really strong about Jackson is how small we are,” Bergenfield said. “We’re not competitive at all because we do such different things. I’m a former aid worker casually having a beer with people from the CIA and the military and [who did] economic policy for the Central Bank in China, for us all to be at a table having conversations in such a non-competitive environment is something unique to Jackson.”

But while flexibility is not unique among graduate programs at Yale, Jackson’s program differs from other predominantly academic courses of study by bringing in specialized practitioners known as Senior Fellows to teach and interact with students.

Though it was not unheard of for practitioners to deliver guest lectures or teach residential college seminars before the institute, Jackson established an institutionalized hiring of non-academic faculty members. Current fellows include David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist who has broken party lines in endorsing same-sex marriage and encouraging Barack Obama to run for president; Stanley McChrystal, a four-star general and former commander of American troops in Afghanistan whose 20-person leadership seminar received 250 applications last semester; and Stephen Roach, a former Morgan Stanley executive who famously said “We should take out the baseball bat” on Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman regarding the latter’s stance on Chinese economic policy.

The opportunity for application-based learning with these Fellows appeals to many Jackson students, a majority of whom spent time in the professional world before graduate school. Christopher Harnisch GRD ’14, who worked in the Bush administration was on active duty in Afghanistan for two years, said he decided upon Yale’s global affairs program after one of the Fellows reached out to him during his decision-making process.

“I knew that if a Senior Fellow was willing to reach out to me while I was applying, I’d most likely have an opportunity to work with them once I was actually on campus,” Harnisch said.

Yet the makeup of the Senior Fellows program contains an inherent difficulty. Because some Fellows do not stay at Yale for extended periods of time and spend limited time on campus due to long commutes or professional obligations, consistency in advising, teaching and research opportunities can prove elusive.

Additionally, as practitioners, many fellows lack experience in university-style teaching, which can lead to difficulties in the classroom.

Darby, who has taken most of her classes with University or professional school professors rather than Senior Fellows, recalled one Fellow who, unaware of traditional practices in academic settings, assigned a 20-page single-spaced paper in the middle of term. Meanwhile, Widness pointed out that, while some Fellows are “phenomenal” in the classroom, others forsake academic rigor to turn class sessions into “story-time.”

“With Jackson money, Yale has been able to do a lot, and it’s helped improve access to interesting people and courses, but I think there have been some growing pains, and I think the sentiment among the students is that not every turn at bat has ended in a home run,” Widness said. “It’s a process and we’ll see where they go from here.”

Jackson truly is still new to the scene. Students from other graduate schools said they were less aware of Jackson than many other options during their application processes — they did not, they said, know anyone who had graduated from there.

As Jackson graduates continue to stream out into the wider world, it’s their experiences that will shape perceptions.