Strong connections could be key ingredient of fellowship program

Students will need more than financial support to pursue federal careers in international relations, observer says.

A new foundation aimed at steering students toward public service careers must work with agencies to make sure program participants can find federal jobs in the national security, foreign policy and international development fields the fund is targeting, an observer said.

"Providing the financial support is a critical ingredient," said Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "It's necessary, but not sufficient to do the job. We need to make sure these folks not only are interested in government and are supported in their academic pursuits, but that they have an easy path into government."

The Robertson Foundation for Government is the result of a 2008 settlement of a lawsuit between Princeton University and the family of donors who gave the university $35 million in 1961 to help the school prepare students for government service. In the 2002 lawsuit, the Robertson family said Princeton was misusing the fund because it was not placing enough students in government jobs. Between 1990 and 2003, 86 of 885 graduates of Princeton's master's program in public affairs took federal jobs in the area of international relations as their first post-education positions.

Under the terms of the settlement, Princeton will pay almost $50 million plus interest to the Robertson Foundation for Government by 2018. The foundation will partner with a number of universities, though no Ivy League schools. While it's not yet clear what forms the programs at these schools will take, the foundation's goal will be to support educational efforts that directly prepare students for public service, and to encourage them to go into government work. It is aiming to announce its first eight fellows by the beginning of the 2010-2011 academic year.

Stier said it's very important to help students find internships and build relationships with federal agencies while they are in school and help them navigate the complex federal hiring process to find jobs in relevant agencies. He said similar programs like the government-run National Security Education Program prepare students, but do a poor job placing candidates in federal positions.

He said as the foundation designs its programs, it should avoid penalizing scholarship recipients for not going to work for government if they were unable to find or get jobs that were a good match for their interests and skills. Instead, he said the focus should be on designing programs that would serve as strong pipelines to get qualified candidates into government. But Stier acknowledged that if students took foundation funding and made no effort to work for the government, some penalties might be appropriate.

William Robertson, who will chair the foundation, said the organization should build strong connections with the key government agencies that will make such a pipeline possible.

"The Robertson Foundation for Government hopes to work with institutions of higher learning all across the country, with the federal Office of Personnel Management, with executives from all of the departments and agencies of government concerned with international affairs, and with like-minded organizations to ensure that a steady flow of exceptionally talented and motivated men and women accept the challenge of public service in the 21st century and make the federal government their career choice," he said in a statement announcing the foundation's launch.