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Chris Myers Asch

Chris Myers Asch

A former Teach for America corps member, Chris Myers Asch is Executive Director of the U.S. Public Service Academy and he is the coordinator for the proposed National Center for Urban Education at the University of the District of Columbia.

Why We Need a National College for Civilian Leadership

As the Fourth of July approaches this weekend, we can expect the standard paeans to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of the Founders. Though some of the celebration amounts to little more than hero worship, we do indeed have much to learn about leadership from that generation -- not only by understanding what they did but also by exploring what they didn't do.

The Founders studied, lived, and argued about leadership, both military and civilian, and they worked to build institutions that would foster leadership qualities in American citizens: civic virtue, selfless service, a sense of duty to country. Some of our strongest public institutions for civilian leadership were created within a generation of the Revolutionary War, including West Point and the University of Virginia. But one institution that many of our Founders - including our first six presidents - advocated has never come to fruition: a national university for developing civilian leadership.

Political parochialism and economic restraints derailed plans for a national university two centuries ago, but the need to educate talented, energetic, and effective public leaders endures. The challenges of the 21st century - from 9/11 to Katrina to the financial crisis - only underscore this need, and the leadership crisis that looms as Baby Boomers retire demands that we address it immediately. That is why a grassroots movement to build a U.S. Public Service Academy has emerged in recent years.

The Public Service Academy is a deceptively simple idea with potentially transformative effects on how we perceive, prepare for, and pursue public service in this country. The Academy would be the civilian counterpart to the military academies -- a "West Point for public service." Academy students would get a free college education, following an intensive liberal arts curriculum with an emphasis on leadership development and civic service. In return, they would be required to serve for five years in the public sector following graduation, in fields from education to law enforcement to international affairs.

Like military cadets, Academy students would study and serve year-round, completing a demanding curriculum that would require service-learning, study abroad, and public service internships. The ongoing emphasis on leadership would infuse every aspect of campus life with a culture of service and unify graduates with a shared sense of mission. After four tough years, Academy graduates would fan out across the country to serve in areas of critical need and strategic importance.

Pointing to the Harvard Kennedy School and similar institutions, many skeptics may believe "we already do this." That is simply not true. Unlike other leadership programs (almost all of which focus on graduate students), the Academy will be an undergraduate leadership development campus aimed specifically at the public sector -- graduates will not be placed in private or non-profit sector positions. Few undergraduate programs take civilian leadership development seriously, and none have a five-year post-graduation service requirement. You can read our Draft Blueprint and decide for yourself if any existing college offers an academic program as rigorous and service-oriented as the Academy.

Others may ask, "Why not just create an ROTC-style scholarship program for public service?" Congress already has created many such scholarships -- including the Udall, Hollings, Goldwater, Gilman, Pickering, and Federal Cyber Service. While worthy, these programs are limited. Few students (and, I suspect, few readers of this blog) know about them and their impact is narrow. Even the most prestigious federal scholarship programs, such as the Truman and Fulbright, do not carry the same cultural weight or have the same symbolic importance as the military academies. An institution dedicated to civil-service leadership will send a powerful message about the value we place on public service in this country. Refusing to create a civilian Academy (while offering five military academies) sends the message to our young people that civilian public service is somehow less important, less legitimate, or less patriotic than military service.

With Barack Obama's election and the economic crisis, recent events have generated more enthusiasm for the public sector than this nation has seen since the Kennedy administration. This extraordinary enthusiasm represents a grand opportunity for Congress and the president to fulfill the Founders' dream of building a national college for civilian leadership. The U.S. Public Service Academy will embody the idealism of this moment in history, and it will endure long after the current enthusiasm fades and the economy recovers.

By Chris Myers Asch

 |  July 2, 2009; 10:24 AM ET
Category:  Teaching Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Better idea -- let's have 3 years of mandatory service for 18 - 21 year old -- either the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, VISTA, or military service. This would create a cadre of citizens that has an appreciation for the freedoms we have and just how good we have it here.

Mary from AZ

Posted by: mkgurney | July 6, 2009 1:39 PM
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I have a better idea. Let's require all US citizens to perform 3 years of service to their country from the ages of 18 - 21. The 3 years could be in the following areas: Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and military service.

Mary from AZ

Posted by: mkgurney | July 6, 2009 12:57 PM
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Only someone from Washington who thinks that more Washington leadership is a good thing for America could suggest a comment like this.

Washington has become a cancer on the United States. We need fewer entrenched lifer bureaucrats, not more of them. There is no reason to have federal government staffing constantly increase, and perpetuating the notion of the glory of civil service will only add to the pressure to increase staffing.

I would argue that we need the exact opposite of what the author endorses. We need people from outside of Washington to bring in ideas to run and shrink the federal government. Then we might have fewer, more efficient programs, vs. the unaccountable breeding morass of departments and offices we have today. A civil servant training program will not produce a single protege who believes that a smaller government is a good thing, yet that is exactly what is needed in our government.

Mike from Mason, Ohio

Posted by: MikefromMason | July 6, 2009 11:10 AM
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As a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, I can attest to fine job our military academies do in preparing future military leaders. At first glance, the idea of similar training and preparation for civilian leaders seems like a good one, but I fear that such a "civilian leadership academy" would all too quickly evolve into an ideology factory not unlike our civilian universities today. They would no doubt promote larger, but not necessarily better government. I just don't see concepts like "duty-honor-country" playing well in a civilian institution. You sure don't see those concepts in operation in the U.S. Congress very often!

Posted by: JoeGianfalla | July 6, 2009 7:53 AM
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Talk about self-interested claptrap by the author, who has already gotten himself/named himself the head of the academy. The comments say it all--redundant, insulated, and competing with our universities. This won't fix government mismanagement or the competency of the career civil servants. Another big waste hole and a nice fat job for Mr. Asch.

Posted by: axolotl | July 4, 2009 8:49 PM
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There is one important difference between uniformed military and civilian service. The top brass career folk who are promoted from within the the (very) top civilian officers are appointed from the outside (though some come from within and many have some government experience even if it is a Schedule C job in a prior administration, a stint on the Hill or a judicial clerkship). Would a public servie academy change this? Probably not given the element of spoils in political appointments.

On the other hand, a cadre of middle managers who attended the same academy (and probably confuse the idea that public service is noble with the proposition that all government programs are beneficial) would increase the insularity of civil servants, a problem that all administrations face when they try to nudge agencies out of old ruts agencies.

Posted by: proveit1 | July 4, 2009 6:06 PM
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So how is this going to stop abuses of power by the Pentagon Gestapo, military secret police, FBI & CIA secret police et cetera? How is this going to stop political surveilance operations, domestic spying by the govt secret police and military targeting innocent American civilians? How is this going to stop buggings, burglaries, wireless electronic surveilance, break-ins of private homes and private offices of American citizens by the US Govt, its ruling class, and their secret police apparatus? How is this going to stop the secret police from abusing power, taking private property, stealing, robbing, engagin in political persecution of citizens?

We already have a Official Media and journalists with no ethics that side with the state security apparatus and powers that be, and, a court system & judges that side with the state security apparatus and the powers that be. Why would it be any different with this new thing?

There's already a Constitution and a Bill of Rights and the US Govt doesn't abide by either one.

Posted by: max21c | July 4, 2009 3:29 PM
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This is indeed a bad idea, which recalls proposals made some years ago in Congress to establish a Foreign Service Academy. The State Department's position on that was, and I hope still is, that we do not need such an academy; that our diplomatic and consular service is all the stronger because it draws junior officers from a broad range of colleges and universities as well as other fields of experience.

The main problem in our public service is that it is overly politicized, and too many top jobs are given out as political plums instead of concentrating on career development inside career ranks. This is true for both Republican and Democratic administrations, and unfortunately Obama is continuing our longstanding and shameful diplomatic spoils system.

Posted by: peterbridges | July 4, 2009 2:43 PM
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There is no good that would come from such an institution, and plenty of bad that would result.

To see what I mean, look at the USMA.
The Army needs lots and lots of junior officers to lead small units into combat.
Some are trained at West Point; far more come through ROTC. After they've served as platoon and company commanders, the Army doesn't need most of them. Part of the reason that there is such a huge bureaucracy in the Pentagon and other Army headquarters is to create make-work jobs for the surplus officers until they retire.

Now, the core of the officer corps is the ringknockers from Hudson High. Take it from me, an ROTC product, that the very worst officers in the Army come from the long grey line. A lot of dead weight. But, I also recognize that the very best officers also come from there. So it makes perfect sense to me that the General ranks are filled mostly with graduates of the Army's premiere engineering school, plus Brother Rats from VMI. Being an alumnus of one of these 2 schools is comparable to being a member of a "skull and bones"-type secret society in the Army. They take care of each other and promote each other.

For all its unfairness to OCS and ROTC graduates, this creates a strong bond among top officers bound together in an autocratic subculture. As an instrument of war, the Army needs to have a leadership cadre thus bound together.
Despite the downside of having a somewhat elitist network covering up each other's mistakes (from My Lai to Tall Afar, West Pointers order war crimes and ROTC officers take the fall,) the institution needs this kind of subculture in order to achieve the impossible missions we demand of it.

So, would having such a "good ol' boys network" in the federal government be an improvement ? No way.
The shield against accountability for the officer corps that is provided by the USMA mafia is necessary because we demand they do incomprehensible and often evil things.
On the contrary, we want, we demand accountability of our executive agency bureaucrats.

This is a bad idea, conceived to advance the interests of insiders. Anti-American. It's insulting that this rubbish would be published on this special day.

Posted by: BrianX9 | July 4, 2009 1:14 PM
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There is absolutely no need for an institution such as this - our universities already provide enough for plenty of educational opportunities in these areas. Also, it would be better not to have such students segregated away from students in other walks of life. What is needed is a change in American culture that values this type of service. This means two things - less emphasis on money making as the measure of success (I don't mean as desirable for personal comfort, but as a value of success in its own right); and to finally to halt the anti-intellectual excercise of conservatives, in particular in the Republican party and on talk show radio, of representing public officials as evil or the heart of our problems.

Posted by: harrumph1 | July 4, 2009 12:01 PM
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Do we really want to give authority and power to a school to give paper credentials to lauch those not capable of real leadership into public "service" . Political science majors learn little beyond election science . Thank goodness law schools do not seek diploma privilege for the bar and bench .

Posted by: borntoraisehogs | July 4, 2009 10:57 AM
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We need merely recognize that Our Founder, Th. Jefferson, Author and Prophet of America, was correct: Rome is the real Anti-Christ. Knowing its "Fifth Column" has usurped West Point and the University of Virginia: to confuse American whig truth and run interference for the treason that funded Hitler (Vatican banker Rockefeller/Presott Bush), killed Kennedy and King (Bush protege Nixon and GHWBush) to keep us as military catspaw in the papal estate of Vietnam, and voted as a bloc on the Supreme Court to illegally appoint a draft-dodging closet-queen as president to commit 9/11 (Viz. "The New Pearl Harbor"), is all we need to re-access the leadership of Divine Providence Our Creed extolls.

Annuit Coeptis is the key to American leadership. The Covenant and the Prophet Jefferson's inspiration gave us The Fourth, let us restore American Independence by hanging Bush and Cheney and the traitors on the SCOTUS who enabled them...the same bloc which recently repealed the Civil Rights Act move to true whig Jeffersonian utopianism this Promised Land is meant to be.

Posted by: iamerican | July 4, 2009 10:19 AM
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I would add to this proposal .. an Diplomacy Academy.
We teach people for war, but not for peace.
Our diplomats currently seem to be soldiers, lawyers, and the wealthy.
Nothing wrong with soldiers, lawyers, and the wealthy .. but is that enough training for the complexity of world coming?

Posted by: George20 | July 4, 2009 10:15 AM
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We have way too many bureaucrats now -- who think they know better how to run our lives than we do!! This is the VERY LAST THING THIS COUNTRY NEEDS. If we need to add more realism in the 'public administration' courses, then get some professors who have 'walked the walk (had real world experience)' vice obtaining a PhD in a classroom environment! This sounds like a 'paper over' for the poorly equipped politicians we have elected over recent decades!!

Posted by: wheeljc | July 4, 2009 9:39 AM
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What, we need an academy to dictate to others? That's what politicians are for.

Posted by: sperrico | July 4, 2009 9:22 AM
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A terrible idea, just another way for the bureaucracy to expand the bureaucracy. Already we have roughly 50% of the population working for the Government (Federal, State, Local) we don't need another school that's entire purpose is merely to give a head start in that direction. Also for any supporter of State's rights this is another attack on that concept as well. Virginia or Maryland does not need to be told to place this or that recent grad because they need to learn how to govern, or serve, or do whatever it is. As to policing trust me in Virginia we have all the police we need just drive down the interstates and their be happy to introduce themselves.

Posted by: beamerao | July 4, 2009 8:52 AM
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Other countries have done this. We should see how they have done.

In France, they call their public-service academy the ENA. The school is infamous for breeding entitled, elitist graduates. If it weren't for the fact that its graduates effectively control the government, popular resentment would have forced the place to shut down.

If we are to have a "government of the people, for the people", government officials should be drawn from the same schools that the rest of the people come from.

And to be honest, there is still MUCH controversy even within the military as to whether the military academies are a good idea, and whether their graduates are any 'better' officers than civilian university graduates (whose training costs 70% less than an Academy education).

Posted by: DupontJay | July 4, 2009 2:33 AM
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growing number of commenters see this mainly as a way to get a free education. that's just the beginning of its weak, rationale and appeal.

Posted by: axolotl | July 3, 2009 6:23 PM
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Do we need, Lord forbid, another government academy? Our fine universities and colleges produce enough of the right education outcomes. Nothing worse than yet another federal training or education boondoggle that competes with adequate education resources. Only bureaucrats love this concept. Anyone interested in getting the kind of education described can get it a number of places. This academy will not cure or even put a dent in what ails the government. In fact, it will make it worse.

Posted by: axolotl | July 3, 2009 6:19 PM
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"....little more than hero worship....". I won't even bother looking up this guy's pedigree. He's obviously on board with the apologize for America, we really aren't all that great, progressivism is better than Americanism theme. One thing we want to make sure of is that the future rulers of America have an opportunity to attend the propaganda institutes with guest lecturers like Bill Ayers. Diversity, of course, will be a must. We must give equal weight to the benefits of Marxian principles and be always mindful of the methods taught by the master, Saul Alinsky. If we keep the Constitution, qualifications for service in elected or appointed office will be revised accordingly. Fundamental change, America. Transformation. Hope. Pride in our country for the first time in our adult lifetimes. No need to put away childish things - THEY WILL BE TAKEN FROM YOU.

Posted by: chatard | July 3, 2009 3:45 PM
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Exactly what we DON'T need.
We need to do away with the elitist service academies and let all future officers and executives, military and civilian,get their education with their fellow citizens.
Public leadership can be taught anywhere, not just an elitist academy, without creating a cultural gap between the leaders and the led.

Posted by: CalKen | July 3, 2009 2:35 PM
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I see several problems with this idea, though I celebrate the author's motives.

1. At a time when we are going to have to seriously cut costs why would be build another expensive bricks and mortar instution? A rigorous ROTC style program would work better and avoid many of the sunk costs that are required in a military type institution. In the past we have had great results with people educated from our vast array of diverse colleges.

2. A public service academy might encourage groupthink in leaders. This is an acknowledged problem in the academies that the intitutions have taken pains to fight.

3. It strikes me as a little undemocratic because I don't want one type of superleader to dominate public policy. The military has recognized a problem when academy graduates band together to promote each other at the expense of equally qualified non-academy grads. I want my community leaders to come from everywhere: elite colleges yes, but also night school, metropolitan commuter campuses, state universities, seminaries, former enlisted members of the military, community activists with high school education, retirees, etc. The military academy experience has shown that many of the most effective leaders come from deiverse backgrounds with diverse educational backgrounds. A person with a science degree may be a better leader than one with a degree in "leadership' whatever that would mean.

Posted by: outragex | July 3, 2009 2:03 PM
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Sorry, but with the corrupt democrats in control I would never support such an institution.
It was bad enough several years ago when I went to the Kennedy School for a security workshop and heard them apologize again and again because so many of their faculty had left to serve in Clinton's administration.
If the current crop of democrats, and administration eggheads were left to institute the idea I figure it would turn out to be a cross between the Kennedy School and ACORN. No way would that benefit the country.

Posted by: LarryG62 | July 3, 2009 1:39 PM
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France has this sort of an institution--though it is a post-graduate academy. It is The Ecole Nationale d'Administration, or ENA ( http://www.ena.fr/accueil.php ), an elite school for training high-ranking civil servants, senior diplomats and industrial leaders. ENA was established by Charles de Gaulle in 1945, and a great many post-war French leaders--including two presidents and seven prime ministers--are graduates of ENA. President Sarkozy has undertaken to reduce the almost-automatic entree to high-ranking positions of ENA graduates, so it must be inferred that there is some controversy regarding the appeal of a school which produces annual crops of these modern Mandarins. On the one hand, the existence of such an institution would professionalize senior public service. On the other hand . . . well, it's the other side of the same coin: it runs the risk of creating and institutionalizing a governing class; my suspicion is that it would become an informally hereditary governing class. It probably suits a more centralized governmental structure like that of France better than it would suit the US.

Posted by: vacohee | July 3, 2009 11:44 AM
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Looks to me like Mr. Asch is getting all his friends to chime in here supporting his pet project.

Posted by: brewstercounty | July 3, 2009 11:17 AM
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We're already doing this. We have the LBJ School of Public Affairs right here in Austin. Very well regarded too from what I hear. And there are other like it scattered around the country.

Posted by: brewstercounty | July 3, 2009 11:12 AM
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The idea of a public service academy has merit but, as someone who graduated from USNA and later served in an ROTC unit, I think that you are too dismissive of an ROTC style program. ROTC is far more comprehensive than the scholarship programs you mentioned and thus ROTC style programs deserve a prominent place in a discussion like this. There are many advantages to military ROTC programs in terms of cost and scalability and they all produce officers who are as qualified and motivated as their academy counterparts. The best place to start is with a low cost ROTC style program. If that succeeds there is always room for expanding the discussion to include an academy.

Posted by: kaasiku24 | July 3, 2009 11:00 AM
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We should have this kind of institution. And we need to decide where it should be.

I think that given that Westpoint, USCGA & USNA are all on the East Coast, this would have to be in the mid-west or west & not Colorado, since the USAFA is there.

Maybe Michigan? It should be possible to get some land cheap there and we all know the economy there in particular could use the boost that this would provide.

I presume that various US agencies would develop programs to hire these grads. Maybe have this dovetail with an assortment of grad-school options. For instance, if a student wanted to go into foriegn service, have them complete 4 yrs at the USPSA, then work on a masters at Georgetown or JHU-SAIS. If someone wanted to go into public health, then maybe a masters option at a major public health school. In any case, the gov't should pick up the tab for both the undergrad (at USPSA) & any grad school option. I would think that the grad school option might boost the duration of the commitment by a year or so.

Every academy that the US Gov has created has been met with "Why didn't we do this sooner?". Well, this would be too.

Posted by: cyberfool | July 3, 2009 10:27 AM
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A national academy for public service a wonderful idea and this is a wonderful time to establish it. And given that so many institutions of higher education are themselves in trouble it should be possible for the federal government to procure a site for such a school at a more than reasonable cost.

As a retired federal law enforcement officer who proudly answered President Kennedy's call to serve I can think of few better ways for the Congress to strengthen our nation.

Posted by: Union1 | July 3, 2009 8:14 AM
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It's a good idea that I actually did a paper on for my MPA a few years back, but the more I look at it and the more you get into the details of how it would work, the more difficult such a prospect becomes.

How would you overcome the prospect of bias of ideals (liberal v. conservative and the various shades of each type of ideology) taught at these institutions, the prospect that such a system could build an artificial public service aristocracy (quite a contradiction to our democratic and anti-bureaucracy tendancies), or the difficulties of graqduating them into a wide variety of fields with different established hiring practices and key separations of legislative, administrative, and constitutional authorities (though some would argue that a common university feeder for the core of these departments would help bring about cultural change to make them work together more efficiently).

I like the concept, but it is what was originally forseen to an extent with the state land-grant universities. We need more as a nation to come back to the importance of the liberal arts and ideas of civics as a basic component of all public education as a responsiblity of good citizenship (not just reading, writing, and arithmetic). In that sense, a national public service academy might in fact be counterproductive to that end.

Posted by: kreuz_missile | July 3, 2009 6:22 AM
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The establishment of the USPSA would be a tremendous event in the history of our country. It would force us to establish which standards educate statesmen and which maxims guide our public servants. A great newspaper like this one teems with Senators Ensign and Edwards, Governors Sanford and Spitzer, and the civil servant who was evidently texting on his cell phone moments before the train he was "conducting" collided with another one on the DC Metro's Red Line last week. It makes me wonder whether good government can ever happen by spontaneous order, or whether we must consciously dedicate ourselves to educating our civilian leaders the way we educate our military ones - combining technical expertise in critically needed areas with an appreciation and commitment to the noble heritage of public service.

Posted by: JLSfromROC | July 2, 2009 4:36 PM
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As a person who had to choose his last-choice of college solely because of financial problems, I only wish this in existence today.

Dedicating my life to public service is a creed I want to uphold. But it becomes increasingly difficult as I must take out student loans for even my last-choice college. And the public sector just does not offer enough money.

If this was already in existence, there will be no doubt that the USPSA would have been my only choice for higher education. With a free 4-year education, I would not need to worry about loans, nor having to spend the rest of my life trying to pay them off.

This has to happen, so that no other students like me have to go through what I experience in this last year.

Posted by: benjskim | July 2, 2009 2:43 PM
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This Public Service Academy is **EXACTLY** what our country needs! A West Point but for Civil Service will not only create a new source for new, innovative leadership in our country, but the creation of the Academy will elevate the importance and prestige that most Americans attach to Civil Service. I am sure a lot of critics will point out that top public policy programs already does what the Public Service Academy sets out to do, and the Academy would just be a big waste of money. This couldn't be further from the mark. These public policy programs DON'T produce top leaders of civil service. These programs are cost-prohibitive, and most graduates go into the private sector. What's more, with the absense of the Academy, the prestige of civil service has declined. 'Govenrment bureaucrat' and 'civil servant' carry negative connotations - much like 'paper pushers.' This Academy will enhance America's civil service in ways that these public policy programs can't - and haven't for decades.

Keep up the good work Mr. Myers Asch!

Posted by: jem921 | July 2, 2009 2:34 PM
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Liberal arts colleges right now are so far removed from actual work experiences. The US Public Service Academy would not only educate students about civic engagement, but would also give them valuable skills like foreign language fluency that will be marketable to get better jobs that are part of a career trajectory. Kudos to the founders!

Posted by: TomatoDrunk | July 2, 2009 2:31 PM
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This MAKES SENSE! I wish I could have attended an institution such as the Public Service Academy, not primarily because of the free tuition, but because of an emphasis on service would be embedded in each and every aspect of life as an undergraduate. Mr. Asch is right in saying that there is nothing like this in existence; I've looked.

While I can't attend, I can still serve. For the vast majority of us who can't attend the Academy, creating this serves as a symbol that will bring service to the forefront.

Especially in these times, we need to not only put a long term down payment on education, but also to immediately define our values and inspire others through service.

Posted by: markpan | July 2, 2009 2:12 PM
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I agree with Marc from MD on that one. I applied to the USCGA and USMMA but was disqualified due to a medical issue, where I could have gone to the Public Service Academy if it had been around a couple years ago. By educating people now, we are securing our future and the future of this nation.

Posted by: chrissjennison | July 2, 2009 2:10 PM
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The U.S. Public Service Academy is a terrific idea and it's disappointing that it hasn't already been built. It is the type of institution that I would have applied to when considering colleges. In such rough economic times it is important that we invest in the next generation of public sector leaders and I can't think of a better idea than this one.

Marc from MD

Posted by: mrpeters | July 2, 2009 2:07 PM
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