Princeton Alumni in Service to the Nation and Humanity

Eric Johnson and Ken Sofer
Sep 30 2020
By Graduate Admissions Office

two men with title of blog post

As seen in the September/October 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs.

What leadership traits are crucial to addressing the current global challenges and risks of COVID-19?

Eric: Leaders should be honest, analytical, resilient, and effective communicators. We began responding to COVID-19  without knowing when it would end. The pandemic upended everything, so we had to adapt quickly to the new reality.

In times like these, there are no easy choices. You have to use every tool at your disposal, analyze available data, make decisions, and then do it all again the next day. You have to communicate transparently with the public—through an increasingly fractured media landscape—while showing both strength and empathy.

Ken: The unprecedented nature of COVID-19 and its reflection of economic inequality and racial injustice make imagination and the ability to process uncertainty more important than ever. Things that seemed unthinkable six months ago are now taken for granted. Leaders who fail to think beyond today’s political and policy reality are going to get left behind by a rapidly changing world.

How did Princeton prepare you to lead, and how do you facilitate conversation in a tensely politicized time?

Eric: The Master in Public Affairs program helped me to learn different ways of looking at the world’s complex challenges. This is critical to leadership because facilitating conversations in a tensely politicized time requires a willingness to listen and understand the perspectives of others who are not like you.

Dallas is an incredibly diverse city, not defined by one specific issue or economic sector. We must bring different people together and find common ground to make progress on the issues that face our residents.

Ken: I find myself drawing on the interdisciplinary nature of my education at Princeton to look at this crisis from various angles. In particular, the quantitative analysis and behavioral psychology training is proving critical to understanding the science behind COVID-19 and how communities react to constantly evolving information about the virus.

Marginalized communities are often the most impacted when crises come. In what ways did Princeton prepare you to advocate for marginalized voices?

Eric: I grew up in underserved communities in Dallas. As a professional, I knew I wanted to help those neighborhoods. My time at Princeton helped me to think beyond talking points and slogans. I was able to have robust discussions about the kinds of policies that would have real impact for those communities who need it most.

Ken: My classmates at Princeton—through their words and actions—educated me on the unique vulnerabilities of marginalized communities, particularly people of color and immigrant communities, and how seemingly benign technocratic policy choices could compound those vulnerabilities. My classmates challenged me to go further than just thinking about the macro-level impact of a particular policy choice and to think more about how those policies affect individuals in unintended and often harmful ways. I also find myself thinking to the example my classmates showed me about how to marry activism and policy work—the outside and the inside game of politics—as a way to shift the Overton window and secure lasting, meaningful change.

Ken Sofer

Advisor for Policy and Planning
Office of the President, International Rescue Committee
Master in Public Affairs, 2017

Eric Johnson

Mayor of the City of Dallas, Texas
Master in Public Affairs, 2003