Every Tuesday evening, about 22 graduate students gather in a typical classroom in Northeastern University’s Ryder Hall to debate famous public policy case studies and the decisions made by leaders with former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
The goal is simple, yet ambitious: To learn from past decision makers and train the next generation of public servants.
“It’s a hands-on course. This is not theoretical stuff. What I’m trying to do is to help potential public managers, and some who already are public managers, to develop the skills you need to be extremely effective as a public manager,” Dukakis said Tuesday, Sept. 29, after his Institutional Leadership class. “I find case studies the best and really the only way to teach this, and I try to engage the class. I couldn’t sit up here for three hours and just talk.”
On Tuesday, students debated the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scandals during the Ronald Reagan administration when more than 20 high-level EPA employees were removed from office. Dukakis dared his students to put themselves in the shoes of William D. Ruckelshaus, who was chosen to manage EPA.
“Even though this case goes back a long way, there are lots of lessons to be learnt here, both about managing effectively and about policy making,” Dukakis said.
Institutional Leadership is a required course for students enrolled in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, which has been forming leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors since 1969. And Haley Oh, a second-year MPA student, said she finds the case studies highly relevant to today’s most pressing issues.
“It’s still the same problems, still the same issues. It’s a good lesson,” said Oh, who plans to work at a healthcare nonprofit after graduation. “The amount that Dukakis can remember is astounding. I would feel bad coming to this class not having read one of the cases.’”
For Elizabeth Way, a second-year MPA student, the Institutional Leadership class is a stepping stone in the program, which fosters in-depth skills in budgeting and human resources, organizational management and leadership, and norms of ethics and accountability. Way, who works for the nonprofit Massachusetts Service Alliance, said learning about the public sector is eye-opening.
“I feel like a sponge because I’m taking in so much about the public sector that I really had no idea about,” Way said. “What Dukakis is willing to share personally is all new and interesting. It’s never dull. This stuff really interests me.”
In lieu of a final exam, students will write a memorandum to a named public manager as if they were part of that manager’s team. But the paper, Dukakis said, is not fictional. Students are required to contact a practicing manager and his or her staff regarding a topic of their choice.
“Dukakis is notorious for having very high expectations and it’s great,” Oh said. “You have to know your stuff with Dukakis. There’s no skipping. Last time I wrote a paper for him, he gave me so many notes … He wrote them in pencil in between the spaces, but they were fantastic.”
“This is going to sound really cheesy, but he’s one of those professors you don’t want to disappoint,” she added. “If I did something and Dukakis said, ‘I was really disappointed,’ I’d feel like I had failed the whole semester.”
Steve Pilis, who joined the MPA program immediately after completing his undergraduate studies, said it’s real world assignments like the comprehensive memorandum for his Institutional Leadership class that are most gratifying.
“The MPA as a whole is often referred to as an MBA for the public sector, which is why it allows you to do such a broad range of different things, whether it’s nonprofit, NGO, NPO, budgeting, management, or leadership,” Pilis said. “It’s nice taking classes and doing work that you feel is real and that you’re proud of.”
MPA students participate in interdisciplinary work, applied research with government and community partners, create social change, and address the emerging challenges affecting the quality of life in cities through the research by the labs and centers at the Northeastern University School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.