The reckoning: A new role for schools of public affairs | LBJ School of Public Affairs | The University of Texas at Austin

By Angela M. Evans

Given the clear evidence of our government's failures, we as schools of public affairs are facing an existential reckoning. COVID-19's threat to public health, the drumbeat of revelations of social injustices, the economic devastation experienced by millions of Americans, and the fear and doubt surrounding the integrity of our most sacred of rights—the right to vote—have rightfully cast doubt on the preparedness and integrity of our public services. It is imperative that we act to restore confidence in the public service corps by cultivating a new generation of talent that can rise to these challenges.

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The major disruptions we face are not momentary, and the adjustments we have to make are not fleeting. We are living through a clear test of our foundational institutions and the values we hold as Americans. Actively assessing our failures in real time is important, but it is not enough. We have to fix those errors. We also have to acknowledge the things that give us reason for hope. People have rallied; they have collaborated, innovated, and sacrificed. They have taken care of each other and found ways to advance the public good.

While uncertainty remains, a path for the future has emerged. We know what problems exist, we know we have to address them, and we know we have the capacity to solve them. The past cannot be prologue. Our complacency has made us complicit to the extent that we failed to promote the exchanges of knowledge and expertise between ourselves and policy communities that would have improved their responses.

Now is time for schools of public affairs to step up and ensure that going forward, the public service is supplied and refreshed with expertise that is matched to the demands of self-government. We need to welcome new ideas and discard old ones. And we need to do this quickly—managing risk and anticipating mistakes.

Now is time for schools of public affairs to step up and ensure that going forward, the public service is supplied and refreshed with expertise that is matched to the demands of self-government.

The LBJ School of Public Affairs is well-positioned to lead this needed transformation. In its 50 years, it has consistently maintained a balance of research and scholarship and practical expertise, ensuring that its programs are well-grounded, practical, and relevant. We have set a singular example by producing rich scholarship and moving that scholarship through the halls of policymaking. This legacy will serve us well as we embark on this new mission. We must leave behind the "as it was," work through the "as it is now," and design the "as it could be." We must do this by not only being open to but eager to change how and where we teach, what we teach, and who we teach.

How We Teach

The pandemic has clearly demonstrated that schools can change the ways they teach. Within two weeks of campus closure, the school moved from regularly scheduled in-person class meetings to a fully remote, virtual platform. Not perfect and not without limitations, the transition demonstrated the power of flexibility and sheer will.

Through trial and error, we discovered a number of innovative teaching techniques that virtual platforms make possible. While some degree of in-person learning is needed to achieve student engagement, critical thinking, and speaking skills, the use of remote and virtual platforms also has distinct advantages.

Virtual learning expands the notion of the classroom. Classes can take place anywhere and participants can be everywhere. The physical plant of the School became less important as a core requirement of learning—thus opening up the possibility of "holding class" in places aligned with course content, such as organizations and governments that apply the subject matter in their daily operations. Classes on public financial management, for example, could be offered to city, county, and state officials, creating opportunities to integrate students and practitioners.

Remote platforms also offer opportunities to expand the expertise and capacity available to faculty, students, and staff. It is much easier to invite experts and practitioners to participate in remote/virtual programs and activities, as they are not required to visit the Austin campus.

Another unanticipated outcome of the shift to virtual platforms were the many formal and informal collaborations among faculty. These not only enlivened and improved the learning experience for students, but led to the creation of groups and spaces in which faculty and practitioners can share best practices and experiences.

What We Teach

Course catalogs reflect not only what the school deems essential for the completion of a program of study, but what can launch graduates into their chosen careers.

The principles upon which these courses are designed and chosen should be clearly stated, to maintain focus and ensure that students choose the most relevant to their needs. Many sets of principles exist. One set offered by Ernest Boyer, a renowned educator who served as Chancellor of the State University of New York, United States Commissioner of Education, and President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is especially resonant today. The first five are his own words; I have added the sixth to emphasize current conditions:

  • The scholarship of discovery: the pursuit of inquiry and investigation in search of new knowledge
  • The scholarship of integration: making connections across disciplines and advancing knowledge through synthesis
  • The scholarship of application: applying knowledge to the social issues of the times in a dynamic process that generates and tests new theory and knowledge
  • The scholarship of teaching: transmitting knowledge and also transforming and extending it
  • The scholarship of engagement: connecting any of the above dimensions of scholarship to the understanding and solving of pressing social, civic, and ethical problems
  • And added: the scholarship of participation: welcoming those seeking or working in other career paths to learn with us and to bring different expertise and viewpoints into the educational experience

These principles assume that academic programs operate in dynamic, aggressive settings. COVID-19 has both underlined the relevance of scholarship and revealed the shortcomings in academic programming that effect the overall performance of public servants.

Failures in public leadership, and paralyses of government institutions, have at best stalled and at worst undermined, our country's ability to meet challenges that threaten the public's health and their general welfare. This chapter asserts that the efficacy of policy schools in mitigating these threats rests in their willingness to self-examine and their agility to make bold corrections.

The failures of public policies and public management practices are on display daily—as is the need for public servants who have skills that are applicable in a wide variety of circumstances, that are foundational in nearly all public settings, and that position them to achieve success. These skillsets enable them to be:

  • Force-multipliers: People who have the ability to influence without authority; possess adaptive capacity that responds effectively to innovations in techniques, platforms, and perspective; that have mastered the levers that affect policymakers' receptivity to analysis; and learned how to account for the motivations, challenges, and positions of others.
  • Coalitions Builders: People who know how to build and sustain collaborations, even when participants do not agree with each other and are reluctant to join; foster agreement on goals and benchmarks; facilitate deliberations; understand and overcome differences; and understand how people seek and use analysis and data.
  • Strategists for Solving Policy Issues/Problems: People who use facilitation and convening skills; build meaningful agendas; and have mastered the art of the long view.

Further, they are skilled at:

  • Partnership Engagement: The ability to secure multisector partners, bridge systems, and solve issues across sectors; learn how to find and recruit allies; and achieve community involvement to inform practice and policy.
  • Measuring Impact: Knowing what data and information can be used to establish a foundation for non/bipartisan discussion and how to use tools to communicate it clearly and simply; understanding both the strengths and the limitations of computational analyses, dashboards, road maps, project/strategic plans.
  • Managing Projects and People: Knowing how to procure resources; lead multigenerational workforces; and establish welcoming and accountable work environments.
  • Communicating: Knowing how to lead deliberations among people with a diversity of viewpoints; to separate truth from opinion; distinguish between hearsay and curated, respected sources; communicate the essence of their ideas, and convince others of the value of their work.

Whom We Teach

The pandemic has moved the role of public policies and the consequences of public mismanagement and social injustice to the center of public consciousness. The country is keenly aware of how policy affects peoples' lives and how public institutions protect or fail to protect citizens' rights and security. This creates an opportunity for schools of public policy to expand our offerings beyond traditional master's programs and the occasional executive education and certificate program. Schools should open up access to their faculties, design new learning models, and collaborate with other public entities to teach the basics of public policy and its governing processes and tools to a much wider set of students and citizens.

The pandemic has moved the role of public policies and the consequences of public mismanagement and social injustice to the center of public consciousness.

The intended outcome of these expansions would be to better utilize the expertise resident in policy schools to advance understanding and engagement in the arena of public action. To achieve this, public affairs schools need to consider the following actions:

  • Open programs development to new partners, including public, nonprofit, and business sectors.
  • Open curriculum construction to new partners, including faculty from other disciplines and expert practitioners from public, nonprofit, and business sectors, especially in the development of experiential learning opportunities.
  • Open programs to new participants, including nontraditional students, lifelong learners, and explorers, and consider mixing these new participants with traditional master's students.
  • Open programs to new ways of instilling experiential learning, including apprenticeships, breaks in study, and intermittent internships.

As a top public affairs school, the LBJ School has faced challenges before. Born in an era of social unrest and civil strife, we have never shied away from challenges nor have we accepted the status quo when change is warranted. The pandemic and the civil disruptions that followed it are a call for us to recommit to our core mission of informing civic discourse and developing public leaders.

The time to do this is now.


Angela M. Evans, a National Academy of Public Administration Fellow, became dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs in 2016. She is the former deputy director of the Congressional Research Service of the U.S. Congress.