Frances Vavrus

Photo of Frances Vavrus
Professor Associate Department Chair
Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development

I joined the OLPD faculty in August 2008, where I serve in the Comparative and International Development Education (CIDE) program. Prior to my appointment at the University of Minnesota, I was a faculty member at Teachers College, Columbia University for eight years and an Andrew Mellon/Takemi Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropological Demography at the Harvard School of Public Health.

My research and teaching are in the fields of comparative and international education and development studies, and my principal interest lies in exploring how schooling is situated in these fields as a solution to a host of complex social problems. By looking historically at the cultural, economic, and political bases of arguments to bolster schooling for certain segments of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa—my primary geographical area of interest—I seek to advance understanding of the transformative potential of education as well as its limitations. My research is informed primarily by the disciplines of anthropology, history, and political science (especially international relations), and my principal work uses an ethnographic approach to explore how people make sense of educational development narratives that emerge from local, national, and international interactions. I also conduct research that utilizes critical discourse analysis and survey methods to address, respectively, questions regarding poverty reduction policies and the long-term impact of secondary schooling on the lives of African youth. With my colleague Dr. Lesley Bartlett, we have developed the comparative case study (CCS) approach, which is now used widely in a number of fields, especially by those engaged in sociocultural studies of policy.


My longitudinal ethnographic and survey research focuses on the Kilimanjaro Region of northern Tanzania, where I have intermittently lived, taught, and studied since 1992. I have been a teacher at the secondary and tertiary levels in the region, and I have been involved in a teacher education program for Tanzanian secondary school teachers and teacher educators at Mwenge Catholic University in Moshi, Tanzania. My most recent book, Schooling as Uncertainty: An Ethnographic Memoir in Comparative Education (2021), uses a narrative approach to guide readers on my 30-year journey through fieldwork and familyhood in Tanzania and the U.S.


In addition to working with this higher education institution in Tanzania, I was the co-principal investigator on a USAID-funded project in Zambia working with faculty at colleges and universities to conduct policy-relevant research, and I worked with the Open Society Foundations’ (OSF) Education Support Program and the Malawian Ministry of Education to revise its pre-service teacher education curriculum. Since 2013, I have served as the North American representative on the Joint ILO/UNESCO Committee of Experts on the Application of the Recommendations Concerning Teaching Personnel, which is the foremost international body that monitors the rights and responsibilities of teachers and makes recommendations to improve the teaching profession. Most recently, I have been appointed to the OSF-Scholars at Risk Working Group on Academic Freedom, and I continue to be deeply involved in teacher professional development through my work with Project Zawadi, a non-profit organization based in St. Paul, MN and Tanzania.