Skip to Main Content

Dean Brown Examines Challenges, Opportunities for Public Affairs Education

News Type College News

John Glenn College of Public Affairs Dean Trevor Brown’s Remarks as the New President of NASPAA

Delivered Oct. 21, 2022

Thank you for the opportunity to serve and lead.

I have the honor of following two exemplary leaders in Susan Gooden and Laura Bloomberg. They have deftly piloted the association through two challenging years and positioned us for future success. I’m fortunate that Susan will continue as NASPAA Immediate Past President, and I’m thrilled to partner with incoming NASPAA Vice President RaJade Berry-James.

All three of us — Susan, RaJade and myself — are blessed to be working with highly competent and adroit staff at NASPAA, most notably Dr. Angel Wright-Lanier, the association’s executive director. I also want to give a special shout out to Ja’Nell Henry, NASPAA’s event manager, who has orchestrated a remarkable return to in-person community through this year’s conference. Ja’Nell and our three university co-hosts have delivered a fantastic conference here in Chicago. Another behind-the-scenes team to thank is the program committee, led by Dr. Brandi Blesset and Dr. Sean McCandless, who have served up an engaging program of panels, plenaries and section meetings.

As we bring this year’s conference to a close, we now look ahead. The theme for next year’s conference will be Impact and Growth: Delivering Value to the Public through Public Service Education.

The Paradox of a Strengthening Field of Public Affairs Education and Declining Faith and Trust in Public Sector Institutions

The field of public affairs education has never been stronger.

To start, as a field, we continue to solidify our core values of diversity, equity and inclusion. Under Susan’s leadership we have etched in stone our collective commitment to these values as we develop a DEI plan in parallel with NASPAA’s soon-to-be-released strategic plan. This year’s conference theme — a bold and noble public service for all — is a clarion call to continue the hard work necessary to dismantle racism in our field.

Second, many schools of public affairs are now institutionalized and deeply embedded within their campuses. I encourage all of you to read Jim Perry and Emily Derringer Mee’s 2021 JPAE article “The Evolution of Organizational Forms for Public Service Education.”  They chart the move of public affairs programs over the last 50 years out of other disciplines like political science and business into stand-alone departments, schools, and colleges.

Relatedly, many public affairs programs have become more organizationally complex and sophisticated, employing a range of staff to perform recruitment and student services, outreach and engagement, philanthropy, and events and communication functions. This trend is reflected in Susan’s wise decision to include a tract in this year’s conference focused on these organizational support units. It’s another sign of the institutionalization of the field on our campuses.

Third, the number of graduate and undergraduate students pursuing and receiving degrees in public affairs and administration has steadily increased. In 1990, as a field we awarded around 3500 bachelor's and master’s degrees in public administration. By 2020, that combined number neared 10,000. Similarly, we’ve grown from fewer than 50 doctoral degrees awarded in public administration in 1990 to around 150 annually. In three decades, we’ve tripled the number of degrees produced.    

And yet, public support and confidence in public institutions and democracy is at an all-time low. This is true in the United States and in many countries around the world. There has been a steady, secular fall in faith and trust in public institutions. As one example, in the 1960s Pew started surveying Americans about the degree to which they trust the government to do what is right just about always or most of the time. In the early 1960s, about three-quarters of American’s trusted the government. In the most recent poll, it is now only a quarter.

A recent headline underlines this lack of trust. On Oct. 18, just three days ago, a headline in the New York Times read: “Voters See Democracy in Peril, But Saving It Isn’t a Priority.”

The data charts the long, precipitous decline in support for the public practitioners, organizations and institutions we serve. Our experiences over the last five years in the public square — a theme of NASPAA’s annual meeting in 2020 — provide a visceral picture of the public’s outrage with public services, organizations and institutions. Protests against the police, schools, public health officials and election administrators are all directed at the organizations and the practitioners that we train and support.

The reasons for this outrage are complicated and complex. They are deeply rooted in economic inequities, social dislocation, racial disparities and the failure of democratic politics to deliver consensus, but instead sow division.

Ominously, during his administration, President Trump issued an executive order, commonly referred to as Schedule F, that would have classified Federal Civil Service employees as at-will employees; there is now a piece of legislation that has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would codify the planned executive order as law.

Citizens don’t trust government and they are angry. Some politicians are listening.

More prosaically, while the graying of many populations around the world is causing a generational shift in public sector employment, many public sector organizations are turning to other fields for their new employees. Signature employment programs like the Office of Personnel Management’s Presidential Management Fellowship no longer turn to public affairs programs as the default provider. Instead, they turn to an array of other programs:  incumbents like law and business, and new upstarts like data governance and entrepreneurship.

So here in lies our paradox. Our field — public affairs education — is very much a part of the premise that higher education can be a force for progressive change that delivers value to the broader public. That’s why we are here. Through our degree programs we produce change agents committed to public service, and through our research we purportedly generate knowledge in service to the common good. And yet, the public rejects the result of all that hard labor.

Where have we in public affairs education gotten the calculus wrong?

I’m going to offer four explanations. This is not a comprehensive or definitive list, but these are explanations that have been offered in many settings. In fact, some of them are your assessments based on the findings of focus groups and surveys conducted by NASPAA as a part of our ongoing strategic planning process.

First, exclusivity. The history of the field has been to produce the elite. Our history of small, exclusive graduate professional degrees reinforced the pervasive societal segregation of a ruling leadership class that was largely white and male, implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, subjugating an underclass, particularly minoritized populations stigmatized by poverty, race, ethnicity, and class.

Second, fragmentation. Our broader field of public service is an alphabet soup of professional associations — NASPAA, ASPA, APPAM, NAPA, PMRC, ABFM, IASIA, NISPACEE and NTA, to name a few. To some degree, this panoply of acronyms reflects the long-standing schisms in the field between administration, policy and management. We have spent a lot of time separating ourselves from each other, rather than collectively making the case for the value we add.

Third, prioritizing our individual growth rather than the overall scale of growth. Rationally, each of us focus on the growth of our programs relative to our baseline (say last year) rather than the scale of growth of the field relative to other fields like law and business that attract students who might have pursued a public service degree. We remain a small field.

Fourth, prestige has in part been driven by knowledge production rather than the application of that knowledge. Many of us celebrate and reward peer reviewed research as a primary duty of our faculty, and sometimes we frame a binary choice between scholarly research and the application of that knowledge to tackle public problems. It’s either or.  Our prestige is a function of the knowledge that we produce rather than the problems we solve.

So what’s the pathway forward?  I’ll offer four pathways linked to my diagnosis.

First, replace exclusivity with inclusivity. The theme of this year’s conference — a Bold and Noble Public Service for All — should not be a one-off. It should be at the core of our mission. Rather than creating an elite, we should democratize access to our programs and degrees. For example, building off of Dr. Trent’s presentation at yesterday’s lunch, we should double down on our efforts to welcome HBCUs, MSIs, HSIs and tribal colleges into the association. Earlier today we convened a panel on recruiting and including more military and military-connected students, a population of public servants that many of us have ignored, while other fields like business have systematically recruited them.

Second, we should resist fragmentation by pursuing collaboration. I’m not suggesting integration or one association merging with any other, but NASPAA needs to find more ways to strategically partner with sister associations like ASPA, NAPA and APPAM to promote public service and advocate for the profession.

Third, we need to collectively commit to grow the overall number of students we serve as a field rather than simply grow our individual existing degree programs. In addition to growing students in our core graduate professional programs, there are multiple ways to attract new students. Many of us are now offering undergraduate programming, and thanks to the efforts of NASPAA and the Volcker Alliance’s NextGen Service Initiative, more are on the way. This is a ripe area for future growth. We also need to target “active practitioners” —  working professionals at all levels of government and different career stages with modalities that are easier for them to access than a two-year residential degree that is the standard for many of our programs. NASPAA’s new Champions Class program is one potential vehicle to reach this audience. As an association, we need to take more active steps to support smaller programs in their efforts to grow. These programs represent the bulk of the membership. We need to explore lowering the accreditation burden, sharing resources across programs, and learning from successful small programs that have pursued innovative approaches to serving their student populations with limited resources.

We need to increase the number of comprehensive schools across our campuses, both here in the United States and across the globe. One of the ways to do this is through many of us in university leadership positions advocating for the growth of our programs. We all know Laura Bloomberg is the new president of Cleveland State University — she’s done her job by creating the LeVine College of Public Affairs and Education. And many of us know of the innovative work of Michael Crow, a Maxwell graduate, the president at Arizona State University. But there are other recent entrants into top-level university positions:  Jonathan Koppell, the new president at Montclair State University; David Birdsell, the new provost at Kean University; and Jennifer Cowley, who has an MPA from the University of North Texas, is now the president of the University of Texas at Arlington. If these folks are in your professional networks, don’t let them forget their roots: Pressure them to advance our field at their universities.

Finally, we need to celebrate the peer-reviewed research our faculty create, but we also need to celebrate and support the application of that knowledge to solve pressing public problems. We need to be more focused on impact rather than prestige. How our work impacts the public we serve should become a lens we use to prioritize and focus our activities.

For many of us, whether here in the United States or around the globe, the pandemic was the manifestation of our purpose, and the public sector response exemplified our promise:

  • Data-informed public health measures like social distancing, masking, and quarantining and isolation;
  • Public-led investments in new transformative medical technologies, notably the rollout of mRNA vaccines supported by publicly funded university research;
  • Massive public investment in stimulus to cushion the economic blow from the pandemic (e.g. the Paycheck Protection Program kept businesses alive; the American Rescue Plan provided funding to keep vulnerable workers safe; and the child poverty rate fell to a record low of 5.2% in 2021)

These are amazing accomplishments.

But for many citizens, these very same transformative public investments were the embodiment of what plagues the public sector:

  • The pandemic’s harmful impacts were bifurcated between haves and have-nots, with minoritized communities suffering more than advantaged communities;
  • Communications from public health officials were at times opaque, confusing and for some duplicitous;
  • Mandates to help the common good, notably vaccine mandates, were experienced as violations of personal freedom for many; and,
  • The law of unintended consequences is still in effect — massive fiscal stimuli to stave off suffering contributed to the great resignation, the rise of inflation, and a growing public debt.

As a field, we bear some responsibility for these perceived “failures” — we cannot simply celebrate public service and action without asking “why didn’t it work for all in the way intended and what can our faculty and students do to make government work better and the public response more effective?”

There are some specific things that we as a field and an association need to focus on to improve and advance the impact of our work:

  • We need to better articulate our value proposition — what do we do to positively impact the public good;
  • We need to more effectively advocate and lobby to influence the public policies that effect our field; and
  • We need to make sure we are listening to key public sector employers and other external stakeholders to assess whether our degrees and research deliver value.

The future portends great challenges. Many of them are immediate.

I think for many of us in academic leadership roles the last two years caught us on the back foot. We were all caught reeling from the pandemic, and while many of us have been working on DEI issues for a long time, the scale and depth of the social justice awakening of 2020 overwhelmed our capacity to create spaces for needed conversations and pathways forward for change.

Now, two years later, we need to get on the front foot. I’m excited about the challenge.

To that end, I look forward to working with all of you to implement NASPAA’s strategic plan, carry on the work of a bold and noble public service for all, and partner to grow our field and enhance its impact on the public we serve.

Thank you.