Alumni Spotlight:

Ward earns Liberty Fellowship, aims to improve South Carolina education

February 26, 2018

By Matthew Kredell

Bunnie Lempesis Ward has a lot of reading to do over the next month. The assigned material includes President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, excerpts from Margaret Thatcher’s memoir, a chapter from the bible, a letter Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from jail, a collection of essays from George Orwell, a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin, and seven chapters from Machiavelli’s The Prince. She hasn’t had to read this much in such a short timeframe since her days as a Master of Public Policy student at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

The readings are preparation for beginning an 18-month journey as a Class of 2019 Liberty Fellow. The Liberty Fellowship aims to connect and help young, proven leaders collaborate to build a stronger South Carolina. Only about 20 of 500 applicants are accepted each year.

“It’s a huge honor, and I’m really excited about it,” Ward said. “I’ve done other sorts of professional development leadership initiatives and they’ve all been very good and helpful, but what made this one really intriguing is it’s a lifelong commitment to the program. Liberty Fellows stay in touch with each other and develop relationships in a very deep way.”

After completing her MPP degree from USC Price in 1999 and doing an internship with the Los Angeles County Community Development Commission, Ward – who also earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Harvard – returned to her home state of South Carolina with a commitment to help at-risk children.

She worked for the United Way for eight years with a focus on early education policy. That led to her current position as director of policy development and evaluation for the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee. It’s an independent committee established by the state legislature to improve education in South Carolina, which placed 48th out of the 50 states in the latest U.S. News rankings.

“I knew I wanted to be in an organization that really focused on education as being one of the huge levers for lifting kids and communities out of poverty,” Ward said.

‘Understanding people and policy’

On the committee, she evaluates performance statistics among the state’s schools, developing strategies to improve education in the state budget.

“My professional career has really been a combination of quantitative analysis and the qualitative side of understanding people and policy,” Ward said. “I think that’s the interdisciplinary education I received at the USC Price School of Public Policy — to take the quantitative with the qualitative, how to implement it and evaluate it. Putting those pieces together was probably the most valuable part of my education.”

At USC Price, she remembers learning economics from Professor Gary Painter, quantitative analysis from Professor Elizabeth Graddy and public policy from Associate Professor Juliet Musso, for whom she then served as a summer research assistant.

“When I met Bunnie, I immediately knew she was going places,” Musso said. “She possesses analytic smarts, creativity and superb communications skills — a winning leadership combination.”

Opportunities to be a difference-maker

Hefty reading assignments are just the start for Ward. Each of the five seminars over the next 18 months will have a new batch of materials to be discussed.

“I think the readings are about what you can glean from the great thinkers before you, and the idea is to get people back into thinking creatively about South Carolina,” Ward said.

She will be identifying a project to pursue over the next few years that will have an impact on the state. A Liberty Fellow from a previous class will serve as a mentor for the process. For a seminar on leading in an era of globalization, she will leave the state and possibly the country, depending on where she is assigned through the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

“I’m looking forward to interacting with a diverse collection of leaders about how to improve education and leverage its impact on students and their families,” Ward said.