A Call for Public Service Scholarships, NYU Wagner Dean Ellen Schall’s Op-Ed Appears in the New York Daily News

WHEN HE LAUNCHED his candidacy for governor of New York, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo bemoaned the lack of a “meaningful back bench” for the 42% of state government workers eligible to retire in the next five years. At a time when New York government is widely viewed as dysfunctional, we have the responsibility and the opportunity to enlist a new generation of talented, highly skilled public servants.

That has been the hopeful ideal ever since President John F. Kennedy expressed it half a century ago. Despite the present difficulties, there are promising signs that we can now make it real. In fact, the Cuomo campaign has offered a promising start by articulating a plan to create scholarships for outstanding undergraduate and graduate students who commit to three years of service in “mission-critical positions” in state government after they graduate.

The plan would help make public service not only an honorable profession, but an affordable one as well.

If we don’t act, we will face an increasing service gap. More than 37,000 state employees have finished their public careers within the past six years. Tens of thousands more are expected to do so by 2015. Who will take their place and, in a time of increasing complexity and fiscal scarcity, take up challenges decisive for our future – from improving educational outcomes in low-income and middle-class communities, to updating transportation networks, opening new pathways to affordable housing and equipping workers with the new skills of the global age?

As dean of NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, I see graduates of programs like ours as creators of that future. Our students explore and analyze issues as wide-ranging as the benefits and unintended consequences of offering pedestrians and bicyclists more space on major city thoroughfares like Broadway, the impact of New York State’s STAR exemption on school district property taxation, and the importance of providing access to anti-malaria nets in Cameroon, West Africa. Our graduates are ready to become innovators and leaders, not just working in state government, but making it work to resolve seemingly intractable problems and rise to the challenges of a transformed and transformative era.

But here’s the often-insurmountable barrier: While these talented young people have a deep commitment to public issues and a passion for public service, too many have to make too much of a financial sacrifice if they follow their idealism into the public sector. Some feel they have to enter the more lucrative private sector to pay off loans. And countless other graduates of law schools, business schools and medical schools never even consider asking what they could do in public endeavors. Scholarships in return for service can be essential to enabling the brightest and most committed students to choose service – not just from schools of government, but from other disciplines as well.

“I know a number of people who wanted to work in public service but went in a more profit-oriented direction because of the cost,” is how Dominique West – a 28-year-old Harlem resident who received a master of public administration degree from NYU Wagner last year – put it to me.

West, an outstanding former high school teacher who pioneered a program that helped University of California, Berkeley – her alma mater – recruit and retain students from underrepresented groups, is currently pursuing her dream, at the city Education Department, of working at a policy level to improve urban schools. But her $60,000 graduate school debt casts a shadow across her commitment. The Cuomo scholarship proposal or something like it could free thousands of promising young people from facing a similar dilemma.

We all know that New York State has a multibillion-dollar budget deficit. People will wonder how we can afford to pay for such a program. A more foresighted question, however, would be how can we afford not to? The costs of incubating excellence in the next generation of public service would be repaid countless times, in manifold ways, with the development of the more responsive, creative and effective public sphere we so sorely need.

If legislators are serious about strengthening the pipeline to public careers, they must meet this challenge. Regardless of who occupies the governor’s mansion in 2011, let’s make sure that in years to come, we bring the best to work for us all across state government.

(This op-ed article by Ellen Schall, dean of NYU Wagner, originally appeared in the July 12, 2010, edition of the New York Daily News.)

7 thoughts on “A Call for Public Service Scholarships, NYU Wagner Dean Ellen Schall’s Op-Ed Appears in the New York Daily News

  1. I think the Dean makes a very cogent argument for these state-funded scholarships. Unfortunately, the current budgetary climate (never really good for professional pursuits in public service) presents an especially daunting challenge. That notwithstanding, the case needs to be made and Dean Schall makes it very convincingly.
    Mitchell S. Cohen
    East Brunswick, NJ
    GPA ’81

  2. I’m glad that Dean Schall is a voice for NYU Wagner and the issues facing graduates.
    I came to NYU Wagner as a career changer. I made a conscious decision to leave lucrative 10 year career in the pharmaceutical industry and was hopeful that Wagner would offer me the opportunity to learn new skills, vary my job experiences, network, and make new friends. NYU Wagner was everything that I thought it would be and more. I knew that when I graduated I would take a pay cut and have to pay back loans, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how much those loans would cost me per month, $1,200. Realizing that my loan payment would be more than what I pay in rent, I had to start to think about looking outside the public sector for employment. I didn’t want to go back to the private industry. After all, didn’t I go to Wagner to learn about opportunities outside the private industry and have a new career in public service? After a few interviews and offers with consulting and advertising agencies, I ultimately decided that I would research and apply for programs to help with my loan payments and take a job at the Veterans Administration. I’m glad that I did. I love my new job with the federal government and the opportunities that lie ahead. Do I miss the private industry paycheck and cringe at my loan payments? Absolutely. But, I’ve decided to think of my professional life as a marathon with a training regimen that includes education, loan payments and job experiences. In the end, I’ll finish strong and enjoy the journey.
    Julie Shahroudi ’09

  3. If legislators are serious about strengthening the pipeline to public careers, they must meet this challenge. Regardless of who occupies the governor’s mansion in 2011, let’s make sure that in years to come, we bring the best to work for us all across state government.
    >I’m concerned this can cause big trouble.

  4. Well written and objective re the need for succession planning and continuity of competencies in public service. The argument for scholarships to encourage students to become public servants is a strong one and I really like that Dean Schall states that national politics should not feature in the decision to empower future public servants.
    I sincerely hope that Dean Schall’s article gains the attention it deserves and that the political powers that be see the wisdom in growing future public servants. Do share any future articles as I have a vested interest in identifying, encouraging, growing and retaining public servants.

  5. Public Service is dead. The private sector has killed it. Only those who study history… know that the private sector has always hated public service.
    Why you ask… because public service helps people to help themselves. And the private sector just wants you to jump through hoops for a nickle.
    The private sector has managed… to demean, deride, and revile public service to the point where, people think government employees are the enemy.
    Well who are government employees… doctors, nurses, teachers, firemen, policeman, zoning specialists, assessors… just to name a few.
    So, continue to vote for politicians who won’t tax the population… and your children will be toothless, stupid, sick and living on the street. And so will you.

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