There are many concerns surrounding our current political discourse in our nation today. I would like to change course a bit in my past reflections about the nature of our disappointing and curious political environment in 2022. In fact, I’m hoping to interject a sense of hope and optimism at a time when that seems hard to identify.
First, I think it’s important to convey all the right reasons for thinking positively about the work we do in our College. And the reasons why we elevate this notion of serving the public interest in all of our programs. Granted our programs encompass environmental studies, political science, public health and public administration and policy, to name a few, but all address, consider and study political, social and economic interactions in society. Hence the idea of the public interest is at the core off all the disciplines represented in our College. Indeed serving the greater public interest is our mission.
One question I am often asked is how do we find any positives in political life in an otherwise turbulent and divisive and troubled nation and world? To answer this question now, I’m going to borrow from a 2020 piece written by Lisa Witter and Josef Lentsch.[i] They identified several politicians from across the globe that work hard to improve politics and make society a better place for all. I won’t identify the individual politicians here, but they actually found some! But what I will identify are the attributes and values they found these politicians demonstrated in their actions in public service. They identified these factors:
As you review this list and their associations with one another, it is hard to argue that these are inappropriate. Although there certainly may be more or perhaps better attributes, the question really is how can we instill these values in our political leadership? Or how can we ensure we are selecting political leadership with these qualities. That remains elusive! But perhaps our College might have an answer or a direction to improve our political life here in Illinois and maybe the Midwest.
This leads me to making a suggestion and a proposition that my College will be closely looking at in the year ahead. In my discussions with faculty, administrators, students and community members it seems time to create an Illinois Academy of Politics. This nonprofit and nonpartisan entity would be housed in the College of Public Affairs and Administration. It would offer workshops, training sessions, speaker series, applied experiences, ethics and campaign courses, and offer a proving ground and working space to practice ethical campaigning, organizing, legislative and governing skills.
Given the State’s struggles with corruption and ethics violations in political circles over the many years and in view of the divisive and ugly politics that we find ourselves in for 2022, maybe now is the time for this College of Public Affairs and Administration, an extension of this University, with its inception as the Public Affairs University of the State (Sangamon State of old), it may be time to move into action and create such an Academy.[i] If not now…when…if not us…who?
This first step is to create a dialogue and an interest and support for such an entity among our faculty, students, staff, alumni, stakeholders and the broader citizenry. Of course, any efforts we might take will ensure we don’t duplicate any existing programs and will proceed within and under the rubric of the University System and guidelines governing such programming. But if our College is true to its mission and mandate and lives up to its promise to students, alumni and stakeholders to improve and meet the public interest, now is the time to think about and perhaps act on such an Academy. If you are interested or want to learn more please connect with the College’s LinkedIn account.
The values we promote and enforce in this College are too important to not be drivers for reform and change in our political system in 2022 and beyond. Given the talent we have accumulated in our College with both existing and new units, spanning fields like public finance, social equity, child well-being, education, international affairs, and communications we are in stronger position than ever to improve public policy and political life in the State. Share these thoughts with colleagues, friends and neighbors and other officials and citizens who might be interested in helping with such an endeavor. If there is interest we will think about our next steps. For now feel free to join our conversation.
Robert W. Smith, PhD, is a full professor in the Department of Public Administration and currently serves as the Dean of the College of Public Affairs and Administration. He holds a PhD and an MPA in Public Administration from the University at Albany (SUNY) and a BA in History/Political Science from the College of Saint Rose.