Redefining Public Affairs Schools

Baruch College of CUNY and George Mason U put emphasis on programs they think can go where the Kennedy and Wilson Schools do not.

October 17, 2016
 
Baruch's public affairs program

George Mason University just announced a $10 million gift that administrators hope will help its school of policy make a name for itself, and it isn't alone. Last month, Baruch College of the City University of New York also announced big plans for its public affairs school, thanks to a considerable donation.

The public affairs school at Baruch was renamed the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs in honor of a $30 million gift. The money will be used to establish a permanent endowment, create six endowed professorships, expand scholarships and assistantships, and construct a new master’s program for international affairs, which will launch next fall.

These are significant moments for both schools, and the universities' actions represent a relatively new trend in public affairs programs, said Laurel McFarland, executive director of the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration.

Previously, public affairs colleges were named for government leaders -- think of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Now, though, public affairs schools are naming themselves after financial benefactors -- attracting big gifts from business leaders who embrace their mission.

At Baruch, the goal is to harness the qualities that make it unique -- its metropolitan location in New York City, its diverse and historically underserved student body -- and capitalize on globalization in its new international affairs program, creating a sort of niche for itself.

“We’re building on our strengths to prepare students for careers in international nongovernmental organizations, global trade and governance, and Western hemisphere affairs,” said David Birdsell, dean at Marxe.

The new master's program in international affairs will have four concentrations: trade policy and global economic governance; international nongovernmental organizations; Western hemisphere affairs; and a concentration that students can tailor for themselves. Additional funds will pay for students to study abroad and in Washington.

Marxe aims to set itself apart from other public affairs schools through the diversity of its graduates, said Baruch President Mitchell Wallerstein.

"We will provide students from all backgrounds with access to meaningful careers representing their cities, their state or provinces, and their national governments in international affairs, or to work through international NGOs to bring about meaningful change," Wallerstein said. "We will make the face of public service more representative of the populations served."

George Mason’s priority is improving the quality of students’ education and building up the reputation of the school.

“I have this big ambition: when people hear the name Schar, that’s all they’ll need to hear,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the newly renamed Schar School of Policy and Government. “There’s an identity there -- that it’s one of the best and most impactful policy and government schools in the country.”

The school is launching a public opinion poll for local and regional campaigns, cosponsoring statewide candidate debates (including next year's Virginia gubernatorial debates), and enhancing research about regional economics.

But what’s also significant is what Schar does not plan to do with the gift: establish itself as a school known for a political perspective.

That’s markedly different from George Mason’s law school, which was renamed the Antonin Scalia Law School in the spring and is considered a center for conservative legal thought. The law school has recently received multiple large gifts -- $20 million from an anonymous donor (who requested the renaming of the school) and $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation -- that indicate a conservative bent.

“Hats off to them -- they’ve outraised us and they’re giving a lot of scholarships,” Rozell said. “We have no political or ideological leaning one way or the other. We only care that you’re a good scholar and a good student.”

Given the expansion of these schools, how will graduates of these schools compete with graduates of elite public affairs schools?

That’s the wrong question to ask, according to McFarland.

“A lot of the students who go to public affairs schools are not looking for the highest-paying job they can find,” she said. “They are looking for jobs where they can have the most impact.”

And comparing graduates from different schools could be akin to comparing apples to oranges.

“If you look at where graduates are going from Kennedy, for example, they’re going to consulting firms like McKinsey,” said Birdsell. “Marxe does not prepare people for that career path.”

Instead, over half -- 55 percent -- of Baruch's public affairs graduates go on to nonprofit organizations, 28 percent find government jobs and about 16 percent go into the private sector. And with the new global affairs program, Marxe is angling for many of its graduates to work in international jobs, too.

At George Mason, in the Washington suburbs, 36 percent of students who receive a master’s in public policy work in federal government, 32 percent are in the private sector (consulting or other areas), and 23 percent go into the nonprofit world.

But McFarland believes that the resources created by these financial gifts will open doors to jobs that aren’t yet listed on career websites.

“Elite schools have been very good over the years at taking exceptional students and then helping them feel empowered to almost create their own jobs,” she said. “And you see the best students coming out of our schools create their own positions by going to an organization and transforming it. I think what [these gifts] can do is open up the students’ eyes to those new possibilities.”

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