Director Kiron Skinner leaves for senior position in Trump Administration

Credit: Courtesy of the State Department via Wikimedia Commons Credit: Courtesy of the State Department via Wikimedia Commons

Kiron Skinner, the founding director of the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Politics and Strategy and Taube Professor of International Relations and Politics, started her new role as a senior policy adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sept. 4. Skinner was additionally appointed as the State Department’s new Director of Policy Planning.

According to the State Department website, the Policy Planning office is responsible for “striking a fine line between [the] day-to-day requirements of diplomacy and the development of long term, strategic plans.” This role, therefore, makes Skinner one of the people shaping United States foreign policy, and includes the power to “bring constructive, dissenting, or alternate views on... foreign policy issues to the Secretary of State.” The power of Skinner’s new role was acknowledged by Carnegie Mellon president Farnam Jahanian, who said of Skinner's appointment that “being called to serve the nation...exemplifies the growing role CMU faculty play in shaping the policy and research agenda at the national level.”

The final shape of that policy and research agenda remains to be seen, however. According to the right-wing blog Breitbart News, “a person close to Skinner described her as a ‘Trump loyalist’ who is not going to deviate from Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda,” while in a statement given to Breitbart News, Skinner said that “[effectively implementing] President Trump’s America First vision means thinking through the President’s ideas and good instincts with the seriousness that they deserve.” These ideas range from the separation and detention of families seeking asylum to an expansive wall on the southern border of the United States.

Skinner has worked with conservative politicians in the past, serving on various boards and political campaigns for George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney, as well as President Trump’s transition team in 2016. Skinner’s new role in Washington, D.C. follows those of former Carnegie Mellon Chief Technology Officer Jeff Boleng, who left Carnegie Mellon in April 2018, and Robert Behler, former Chief Operating Officer and deputy director of the Software Engineering Institute, who left in Dec. 2017, both for positions in the Department of Defense.

Students in the Institute for Politics and Strategy had their own takes on Skinner’s appointment. Eoin Wilson-Manion, a second-year International Relations and Politics major, said that it is “hard for me to get behind anything about the Trump administration,” but that he “[does] think, on a surface level at least, that it is good for CMU to have people [representing it] in the real world.” This is especially true given the enormous Department of Defense contracts, such as a $732 million dollar, 5 year award to the Software Engineering Institute in 2017, or an $80 million dollar award to the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Group, an initiative led by Carnegie Mellon. According to the Carnegie Mellon’s 2016 annual financial report, sponsored projects like these account for 33.3 percent of the operating revenue, totaling almost 400 million dollars.

Trevor Lazar, a second-year International Relations and Politics major who worked as a research associate for Skinner’s International Relations department, said he “greatly respect[s] her knack for quality research and the strength of her convictions.” When asked about Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian’s comments about the growing influence of Carnegie Mellon faculty over national policy, Lazar said that he thinks “CMU faculty bring a unique perspective to policy grounded in research and science that is unique to the field. I believe this will be an important, fresh perspective on the national level.” Lazar and Wilson-Manion both commented on how important diverse ideological perspectives are in the International Relations and Politics department, and it will be interesting to see the impact such an experienced, competent person like Kiron Skinner can make in such an influential role.