Home Newsroom Current Students Making Democracy Work - An Open Letter from Dean Orr

Making Democracy Work - An Open Letter from Dean Orr

Dean Robert C. Orr

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,

Presidential Election 2016The 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 One of our students has shared that some students have withdrawn applications to work in government positions and others have even “begun questioning why they are getting this degree.”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,



Really enjoyed reading this as a former student/current fed. Thanks for giving hope + solidarity.

Thanks for sharing with the rest of the community Bob's very thoughtful, encouraging message. 

I’m writing to thank you for your open letter to the community and your robust support of the role of the School of Public Policy and the University writ large at this moment.  As you are, I’m seeing distraught students, many of whom also feel personally vulnerable.

Just wanted to pass along that I really appreciated hearing this from Dean Orr and thought it was extremely well timed and written.

This is a wonderful letter by Dean Orr.  I will share with my adult children, who need to hear this message even though they are not in school or pursuing a career in public policy.

Dear Bob,  I have not been very active in alumni affairs, but your letter about the election of Trump compelled me to respond.   Being shocked by the election of Trump illustrates how totally encased within the beltway bubble the UMD School of Public Policy (SPP) is.  You stated that the school is “in "Washington, educated, diverse, coastal, cosmopolitan, internationalist”.  These are precisely the characteristics that the populists rebelled against.  Furthermore, the school serves the establishment of whatever party is in power without question.  This is illustrated by the faculty page at:  http://publicpolicy.umd.edu/faculty stating that “faculty…play influential roles in the nation's policy-making process.” So SPP is complicit in the policies that led to this revolt. I support your plea to “get ourselves out into the community ever more directly, profoundly, and dare I say, humbly.”  This is an important step, but it will not be enough. Your curriculum itself makes people blind to the outcomes of economic policy, and avoids questions about US international security policy, by either tacitly ignoring its disastrous and criminal foreign policies, or actively defending them.  You said, “Making public policy is not a technocratic exercise.  Values matter. Politics matter.  Leadership matters. That is why we teach normative dimensions of public policy…”  Noble words, but actually, as currently practised, public policy IS a technocratic exercise. SPP teaches one course in normative analysis covering major forms of western philosophical thinking: deontology, egoism, utilitarianism, etc.  But there is no guidance as to any method for deciding which one might be best to follow, and there is a more fundamental problem.  One course in normative analysis is hardly preparation for making ethical decisions.  The analytical courses overwhelm the rest of the curriculum, and they are based on an especially blinding ideology, neo-classical economics (NCE).  To the credit of SPP it has had two heterodox economists on the faculty: Robert Nelson (Economics as Religion) and Herman Daly (Ecological Economics), but they have little influence as neo-classical economics dominates the curriculum and faculty.  With great insight you identified the key issue that led to the election of Trump, but at the end you take the wrong message:  “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.”  This implies that the problem is anger and fear, not the policy!  You don’t question globalization and free markets, because that is implicit in neo-classical economics which SPP embraces!  Q. “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?” A. Good question.  The answer is no.  Q. How do we "compensate losers" when economies shift?A.  Economies don’t just “shift”.  They are shifted intentionally to achieve policy objectives. This question reveals your implicit acceptance of globalization, as if globalization and outsourcing all the working class jobs to Asia is a random act of nature, not an intentional policy to increase corporate profits at the expense of US labor.   Q. How do we "compensate losers"A.  Wrong question.  How do we prevent or minimize “losers” in the first place?  Not all policies are win-lose.  Some are win-win.  Outsourcing the entire manufacturing industry to China is obviously win-lose for working class Americans, as are the tax policies that led to the top 1% getting 95% of the income gains since 2008.  Q. Should we? What are the consequences in the social and political realms if we don't?A. Trump or someone worse.  Q.  How do we simultaneously address long-standing structural inequities in our society?A.  Good question to focus on for the next 10 years.  The policy of exporting all the working class jobs to China was done intentionally for the benefit of corporate profits at the expense of labor.  But it was given a veneer of objective, non-partisan justification through the use of the neo-classical economic principle of “comparative advantage”, saying that everyone benefits from “free trade”.  Herman Daly refuted this argument years ago, but no one at SPP listened.  Paraphrasing  Daly, Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage is based on nations producing within their borders what they are best at producing, and then trading with other countries for things they are good at.  This principle is premised on purely national labor and capital, and not on mobile capital employing labor in other countries.  If capital is mobile, then what is created is “absolute advantage”, not comparative advantage.  The entire edifice of “free trade” benefitting everyone through “comparative advantage” is based on a falsehood, non-mobile capital.  What is called “free trade” is actually the erasure of national boundaries for the production of goods anywhere in the world by mobile capital finding the lowest labor and environmental costs, a race to the bottom.  Comparative advantage requires production within national borders.  So the whole edifice of “free trade” and globalization is based on a lie.  Daly can explain this much better if you ask him.  The ideology of neo-classical economics is used for purely political reasons, so naturally SPP is blind to its effects.  Everyone at SPP is indoctrinated in neo-classical micro and macro economics.  The first thing SPP should do is stop teaching these courses as established doctrine.  A heterodox approach to economics at the minimum should be adopted.  Continuing to teach neo-classical economics will result in no change.  There are many other reasons for the election of Trump that would take too long to explain, but one established fact ignored by SPP is that by objective statistical measures, the US is an oligarchy, not a republic or democracy.  A Princeton statistical study proved this.  You can find the link at: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746(also attached) SPP continues operating under the pretense that the US is a democracy and serves the oligarchs.  There are numerous other issues that led to Trump besides the loss of decent jobs for working class people: 1.     Complete impunity for Wall street executives and government figures who commit crimes as well as the police. 2.     Bailout for Wall St. and nothing for Main St. 3.     Massive concentration of wealth at the top and nothing for working people. 4.     Endless worldwide imperial wars attacking countries without provocation, bankrupting the taxpayers, and sending young people to die for nothing, murdering millions of people, and creating a huge refugee crisis.  Especially drone attacks killing thousands of innocent civilians at weddings, funerals, etc. 5.     The fraudulent war on terror, under which the US has bombed seven or eight countries killing millions of people and destroyed at least two of them, Iraq and Libya.  Both were done under false pretenses to justify the ultimate Nuremburg War crime of a war of aggression. 6.  Non stop threats and aggression towards Russia. 6.     Massive corruption in government as personified by Hillary Clinton and her lying, perjury, influence peddling, and cashing in on speeches to Wall St. and other corporations.  The election was not primarily an attack on “people of color, women, "undocumented," international students, LGBTQ, and persons with disabilities”, but they will be collateral damage from the universal neglect of both parties and schools like SPP to address the concentration of wealth created by neo-liberal, neo-classical policies promoted by institutions such as the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.  You could start with a series of speakers who might tell you what is really going on such as:Herman Daly Paul Craig Roberts Chris Hedges etc.  Thank you for your concern and attention to these issues.  Sincerely, Gary          

Great message. Thank you for sharing this with alums.

This was the most important communication I have ever received from SPP.  I would welcome the opportunity to come to campus and continue the conversation with others in our community. Thank you SPP alum, black woman, mother, international affairs, labor rights, human rights, federal worker

I’m a graduate of the school and vehemently disagree with almost all of the assertions made in this article and furthermore believe it does a disservice to the school.  I’m choosing to post this anonymously because I have witnessed many of my fellow alumni adamantly participating in extremely aggressive silencing of opinion on social media entirely unbecoming of anyone who values the principles of enlightenment via higher education. The populist electoral movement only shocked people who weren't paying attention (or worse, were violently insulting everyone who disagreed with them).  The Republican and Democratic establishments have both broadly failed this country and there were two competing visions for how that could be changed - they were offered by Sanders and Trump.  The DNC chose to conspire against Sanders to rally behind Clinton - a status quo neo-conservative who offered nothing but more of the same in terms of failed domestic and foreign policy.  If you are surprised Trump won, you should re-assess your ability to critically analyze politics. Furthermore, you say the school is non-partisan while penning this entirely partisan piece in support of Clinton (i.e. “excited to vote for the first woman president”).  People should be (and should always have been) questioning how and why they want to work in government.  If the reasoning behind that is cynically charged elitism then yes, you should be worried about your continued ability to find jobs in government.  If you want to help people and fix the problems that our country has, you should never doubt that pursuit, because our country has more problems which need fixing now than perhaps at any point in our history that wasn’t a time of Civil War. People have lost faith in our institutions, that is something we can agree on, and people from our school who have directly contributed to that acute failure should feel bad about it.  The movement sweeping broadly through all Western nations right now is a direct response to that failure, which is intrinsically one of public policy.  Too long have our governments been plagued by leaders who do nothing but dole out benefits to financial institutions and defense contractors while real wages and labor participation rates continue a deep slide as income inequality skyrockets.  Too long have we allowed these same leaders to mislead us on gallivanting disasters of foreign policy interfering and failing to do any good in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, while at the same time kicking the can year after year on the real problems that most Americans suffer from. Globalization should (in economic theory) broadly help all people enormously; however, our leaders in the United States have failed repeatedly to reckon with the “distributional consequences” of this trade policy while proposing increasingly aggressive pushes over the edge like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  How can this leadership be surprised by a relentless backlash?  Have they seen how these policies have ravaged that rust belt states that Trump flipped in the 2016 election?  Probably not otherwise they would never have been so recklessly bold in the first place.  Yes, we absolutely have an obligation to “compensate losers” in global trade or else what these policies become is a war against poor people in middle America.  Those poor people spoke up in this election because they were tired of getting relentlessly screwed. Public Policy and governance (and education attained therein about those topics) is indeed at a premium in 2016, the difficult and complex work has never been more important.  Who exactly is cutting losses?  Democracy DID work.  The message delivered was loud and clear that something desperately needs to change, and people are increasingly willing to lay with darker devils if they have to in order to get any attention paid to their problems whatsoever. They have been lied to by charismatic charlatans like Obama who promised “hope and change” and then delivered nothing but bank bailouts, failed healthcare policy, expansion of extrajudicial killing and rendition, and more regime destabilization.  I don’t know about anyone else reading this, but I went into the study of public policy with the most benevolent of intentions, and the real outputs delivered by the political establishment in the last 30 years of my lifetime (including Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and what Clinton offered in 2016) are exactly the opposite of what I would consider good governance.  That uninterrupted timeline of neo-conservative failure was finally put to death in the 2016 election, and good riddance.  If you care about this country, you should be dancing on that corpse’s ashes.

I totally agree with you that making public policy should not be a technocratic exercise and that values and repairs still do matter. That's why making democracy work should be the mission of every school.

Add new comment

To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.