What can MPP students learn from a journey to the North Pole?
Jasper Theodor Kauth, Case Writer at the Case Centre on Public Leadership highlights lessons from an Arctic expedition
The case method is a cornerstone of the Master of Public Policy (MPP) at the Blavatnik School of Government, using stories of real-world policy challenges to bring academic theories to life.
When the 2023 cohort of 146 MPP students from 60 countries streamed into the lecture hall for their first case teaching session, many were surprised to learn that their first case was not about finding a solution to a major political problem or a simulation of a high-stakes negotiation; instead, they were asked to put themselves in the shoes of Misba Khan, a 48-year-old Pakistani-British woman, as she prepared to ski the last degree to the North Pole with the Women’s Euro-Arabian North Pole Expedition (WEANPE) in 2016. WEAPNE aimed to bring together a diverse team, to foster understanding and to encourage others to reach beyond expectations while facing physical challenges such as -40°C weather and the threat of polar bears.
The case ‘“Should I really be doing this?” Misba Khan’s journey to the North Pole’, written by Professor Karthik Ramanna and Oenone Kubie, transported students to the Langjökull glacier in Iceland where the 12 participants of WEANPE were attempting to ski across the rough terrain at -18°C as part of their first training expedition.
After the first day of training, Misba was exhausted. Skiing to the North Pole was not something she could ever have imagined. Growing up in the British South Asian Muslim community and describing herself as “an ordinary person who does a nine to five job and a mum,” Misba had joined a local walking group, then pushed herself on hikes to Morocco and Mount Kilimanjaro. She felt joining the WEANPE was an opportunity to inspire other people. But while her family had been supportive, some members of her community questioned whether she could complete the expedition while also fulfilling what they viewed as her religious and familial responsibilities. Misba was adamant: “I wanted to show that breaking those barriers didn’t mean losing your religion or culture, it’s about sharing.”
Prior to arriving in Iceland, Misba had invested effort in building skills such as teaching herself to swim, but she was still inexperienced in many areas, having never lit a camping stove, nor erected a tent, nor put on a pair of skis. Now, during the training, she was thriving at certain aspects but struggling with others. The skiing had pushed her to the edge of her endurance and she had found herself connecting with only one of her teammates as the others were somewhat younger and more experienced than she was. When Misba received the unexpected news that her friend was leaving the expedition for good, Misba needed to decide if she would keep going.
When confronted with the decision that Misba had to make, students quickly raised compelling reasons as to why Misba should keep on going, but there were also concerns, including around the safety of herself and her teammates. MPP student Lhavanya Dharmalingam summed up Misba’s dilemma: “This feels almost paralysing. There are so many issues to consider and she has to make a time-sensitive decision.” For student Roop Kunwar Singh the challenge was to identify “one critical point that lies at the heart of the decision. We need to create a hierarchy of the criteria Misba is considering.”
For some students, Misba’s hesitation to question team decisions stood out. Worried that she did not have the level of experience that others brought to the table, Misba did not always feel confident to raise concerns, such as when her teammates allocated tasks to her without first consulting her.
“To be effective decision makers, we must break out of our cultural comfort zone. But to build the necessary connections, especially in such a diverse team, we also need to communicate the vulnerabilities that come with that.” —Lhavanya Dharmalingam
Many students suggested that remembering all the challenges she had overcome thus far could help her gain more self-confidence. That self-confidence could not only help her communicate better with the team but also help Misba make the decision facing her now.
According to case teacher Professor Emily Jones, cases like this “teach us new ways of thinking. They help us to ask the right questions that really diagnose the key problems in the room.” Student Shuab Gamote likened it to training for a sport: “This case offered the opportunity of an out-of-body experience in a safe space which allows us to practice decisions and think through the consequences. Athletes can practice a throw or shot a hundred times but policy makers usually do not get this chance.” For this to work, students had to bring in their diverse perspectives to see the problem from all sides. Case co-teacher Professor Martin Williams emphasised: “You are all on the same team, tackling a shared problem.”
“It is crucial that you stay authentic while also allowing others to be authentic. Be prepared to disagree, but do not treat these discussions as debates to be won.” — Emily Jones
Misba’s journey to the North Pole also reveals parallels to the students’ journey on the MPP programme. Despite Oxford not having a population of polar bears, the MPP might still present students with obstacles and challenges that they need to overcome as a team.
“Misba’s case reminds us that we all have an existential motivation. All these new challenges we are now facing are related to the challenges we have already had to overcome to get this far. If we focus on what drove us to overcome the obstacles then, we can overcome the new obstacles now. And to do so, we must focus on our own personal ‘true north’.” — student Nicholas Fabbri
Do you want to know what happened next?
‘“Should I really be doing this?” Misba Khan’s journey to the North Pole’ and the follow up case 'True North: Misba Khan's Journey to the North Pole' are available at The Case Centre for instructors wishing to use it in their own teaching.