Universities propose alternative to public service academy

Increasing collaborative research and public service training at universities may be the most effective way to groom and recruit talented students for federal jobs, the head of an educational association said last week.

In a letter sent May 16 in response to newly introduced legislation to establish a public service academy, Kathy Newcomer, president of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, suggested the creation of a "virtual academy" that takes advantage of existing resources.

"Collaboration and networking present the strategies of choice for the present and future in public service, and we have the institutional players who could enhance the knowledge available to students, and reduce the brick and mortar costs for a new campus," Newcomer wrote.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Chris Shays, R-Conn., introduced the academy legislation in late March. It would establish a 5,000-person undergraduate academy, on par with the nation's military academies, to inject prestige into public institutions and highlight the importance of public service.

The academy would be free to students, at a cost of $205 million a year to taxpayers. After graduation, students would repay the country for their free education by spending at least five years working for the government, at the local, state or federal level.

Some government officials have expressed concern over the implications and cost of creating such an academy. In an interview with Government Executive, Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer said the academy proposal may be counterproductive, offering a "favored class" job guarantees at the expense of other potential candidates.

Newcomer's letter calls on the architects of the proposal -- Chris Myers Asch and Shawn Raymond -- to brainstorm ideas with the educational association about a virtual academy that would enable students in universities across the country to experience the same curriculum and participate in virtual learning networks.

"Universities and related research organizations are partnering in very creative ways already," Newcomer wrote. "Drawing upon current information technology and existing networks, there are quite interesting opportunities for us to explore."

The letter is in line with a number of proposals aimed at combating an expected retirement wave, with two-thirds of the federal workforce eligible to retire over the next decade.

"We face an enormous problem in our country in the need we have to make government service a profession of choice," said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. "We need to focus on efforts to engage the existing networks of talent development institutions and not just public policy schools."

Newcomer assured the academy supporters that her organization shares the same goals of encouraging young people to enter public service and ensuring they have the opportunity to gain the strong skills needed to lead and transform the public sector.

"We applaud the increased attention being given the concept of public service education," Newcomer wrote. "The current proposal to establish a public service academy … raises some great possibilities."

Asch said the academy proponents "welcome the advice, collaboration and support of anyone in the higher education community who is committed to giving those young people that opportunity."

But he noted that the nation has five real, not virtual, military academies that offer opportunities for service-minded students to become military leaders, adding that it only makes sense to offer a civilian counterpart to young people who want to serve their country outside of the military.

Asch said academy leaders are planning to meet with NASPAA in the next couple of weeks to discuss the letter.

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