The following is an open letter to the University of Maryland School of Public Policy Community from Dean Robert C. Orr in the wake of the recent United States presidential election.
Making Democracy Work
Dear SPP Family,
The populist electoral earthquake of 2016 has destabilized much of what we know, or thought we knew, about our country. The aftershocks are just beginning but will rattle us for months and years to come. While those who were excited to vote for the first woman president are perhaps the most shocked, so too are many of the President-elect's supporters who didn't expect victory, as are the Republican and Democratic establishments which have many questions to answer as well. People and countries around the world are just waking up to a brave new reality in which the United States could potentially play a significantly different role in the world from any they have seen since the Second World War.
The School of Public Policy and the University of Maryland is a non-partisan institution which takes no side in electoral contests. That said, it is safe to say this election has hit our community hard. We are in “Washington,” educated, diverse, coastal, cosmopolitan, internationalist, and generally think that government has an important role to play in crafting policy solutions to modern day problems and challenges. The President-elect campaigned overtly against all these things – and won. What one journalist prior to the election called a “civics lesson from Hell” has morphed into a potential validation of behaviors and attitudes that run against the grain not only of civil discourse, but also common decency and, in some instances, the law of the land.
I have heard from many in our community, especially our students, how personally you take this. I understand this. I do too. One of our students has shared that some students have withdrawn applications to work in government positions and others have even “begun questioning why they are getting this degree.” Why indeed?
This moment calls for introspection across the board. Let’s start here at home. As your Dean I want to share a few thoughts with you and hope that we can develop the discussion as a community in the coming days and weeks.
Making public policy is not a technocratic exercise. Values matter. Politics matter. Leadership matters. That is why we teach normative dimensions of public policy and leadership and management, in addition to analytical skills and various types of substantive policy expertise. Our challenge, and that of our students when they leave SPP, is how to integrate these various skills, knowledge sets, and orientations into a coherent public policy leadership profile. Never has this challenge been so acute, or so necessary.
People have lost faith in our institutions – virtually all of them. This undermines our democracy, and leads to the type of electoral paroxysms recently witnessed in the United Kingdom, Hungary, the Philippines, and now the United States – to name but a few countries. Only through the exercise of genuine leadership can that loss of faith be restored. Our students have, do, and will emerge from SPP better prepared to make institutions of various kinds work, and earn the trust of people throughout society. This is a major contribution to the fabric of democracy.
Globalization and free markets (and various tax and budget policies over the years) have huge distributional consequences, which in turn can result in anger and fear that can be all too easily mobilized. Are we focused enough on the distributional consequences of various policy choices? Have we taken the issue of inequality seriously enough — locally, nationally, and globally? How do we “compensate losers” when economies shift? Should we? What are the consequences in the social and political realms if we don’t? How do we simultaneously address long-standing structural inequities in our society?
We are not a school of “Government” but rather, one of “Public Policy.” We work with, and in, not only the federal government, but also state and local government, the non-profit and philanthropic sectors, the private sector, and the ideas and knowledge sector. There are many ways to serve the public good in all these sectors, and the election of 2016 does not change that. In fact, it puts a premium on those who pursue the public good across these different sectors – including government. Our students, alumni, faculty and staff are engaged in the hard work of governance, and must become ever more capable of navigating an increasingly complex pattern of multi-stakeholder governance across sectors, across constituencies, and across geographies. Further developing this paradigm of 21st Century governance is an essential element of making our democracy work, and a hallmark of an SPP education. This new frontier is both exciting, and now, ever more imperative in the immediate run.
The growing and full-throated attack on elites in virtually every corner of the globe, having now entered the heart of the body politic in the United States, demands that those lucky enough to have a great education, economic means, and opportunity, use their superior resources for the greater good. That is, use OUR resources for the greater good. This is why we need to get ourselves out into the community ever more directly, profoundly, and dare I say, humbly. The “real world´ is all around us. Our new MPP curriculum emphasizes this. Do all our courses, our research, and our service efforts take us far enough, fast enough? At a minimum, our new curriculum and our Do Good Institute and programming provide us various means to get ourselves “out there” to meet, help, and learn from people around the block, around the country, and around the world. The new set of classes, projects, and initiatives that will have student and professors working in various parts of the community is a huge opportunity that must be seized by all.
So where do we go now? Is it time to cut our losses? To the contrary, making democracy work is the mission and lifeblood of our school. We have much to offer. So now I believe that it is time to double down, recommit to the public good, civility, and public service. We must serve in all sectors and across sectors, including in the federal government. We must find ways to cross-fertilize in more effective fashion across various sectors. Multi-stakeholder action is not only the wave of the future, it is now an imperative to achieve public good at all levels of governance.
Finally, to the people of color, women, “undocumented,” international students, LGBTQ, and persons with disabilities in our community, please know that we as a united school family stand with you at this time of great angst and uncertainty. We will work with you to make our democracy work. No one will stand alone in this endeavor.
With greatest respect, solidarity, and commitment,