Tag Archives: O’Neill School

Endings…

I hope readers will indulge some personal nostalgia today….

Last Saturday, I posted grades for the students of my final class as a college professor. The semester was surreal –for the first time, I taught remotely, and to be honest, I hated it. In normal times, when I teach, I walk around the class asking questions, looking for puzzled faces that tell me I need to back up and explain something more clearly…I meet with students outside of class to answer questions/concerns. I get to know them.

None of that happens virtually.

That said, I was really pleased with my graduate students’ performance. My midterm is something of a killer, and several did poorly on it. But their research papers and especially their final exams were almost uniformly excellent. The midterm is intended to determine whether they understand constitutional provisions and–more importantly–can apply them correctly to “real world” fact situations.

The final is intended to determine whether they understand what government is for. Below  is this year’s  version.

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There are three essay questions in this take-home final examination. Choose one of them to answer. Your answer should not exceed three (3) typed, double-spaced pages.

I.   Earth has been destroyed in World War III. You and a few thousand others—representing a cross-section of Earth’s races, cultures and religions—are the only survivors. You have escaped to an earthlike planet, and are preparing to establish a new society. You want to avoid the errors of the Earth governments that preceded you. What institutional choices do you make and why? You should consider:
A.   The type/structure of government you would create;
B.    The powers it will have;
C.    The limits on its powers, and how those limits will be enforced;
D.   How government officials will be chosen and policies enacted;
E.    The social and political values you intend to privilege.

II.   It is 2020 in an alternate universe, and you have been elected President of the United States. You are following an administration that has made significant—even monumental—changes to American public policies and democratic norms. Which of those changes would you accept and follow, if any? Which would you change?  (I am not looking for exhaustive lists; choose one or two areas to discuss, and justify your decision to accept or reject the current administration’s approach.) For each policy you would retain or reverse, explain why it is or is not supportive of the common good and/or consistent with American Constitutional values.

III.   During every American election season, there will be a number of candidates from the business sector running for public office who have neither studied public administration nor previously served in a governmental agency or government position of any kind. They usually argue—and many Americans will agree—that success in a private business venture is a qualification for public office, that the skills that are necessary to success in the private sector are transferable—that they are the same skills that will enable them to be successful public servants. Do you agree or disagree with this assertion? Why?

You may make use of any materials you wish in composing your answers. Organization, grammar and spelling, and clarity will count, as will the originality and persuasiveness of your essay.

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The essays I received were unusually perceptive. Almost all of them explicitly addressed the responsibility of government to provide for the general welfare/common good, and the  similarities and differences between public and private sector values. The new world governments they created, their critiques of policies of the “preceding” (Trump) Administration (students who chose #2 were uniformly–and highly–critical), and their ability to distinguish between private sector skills that would or would not qualify someone for public service were all excellent.

It was a reassuring response to exit on.

So–I have now retired after spending the last 22 years at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. (It was my 5th and last “career”). Aside from continuing this blog, I’m really not sure how I will spend my time. There are things I won’t miss–many of the bureaucratic elements of academic life–but I will really miss interacting with students.

As I learned from leaving my prior work lives, such departures are bittersweet…..

They are also inevitable. Happy Holidays.

Nostalgia And Reflection…

It seems appropriate to be reflective on this very challenging Thanksgiving. Especially, perhaps, at my stage in the life-cycle.

As we approach the end of a truly horrible year for everyone, I am also approaching the end of what has been a genuinely rewarding and satisfying career. Not my only career–I’ve had several (my mother used to say I didn’t have a resume, I had an itinerary…) After twenty years of “professoring,” I will retire from the faculty of the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis at the end of the current semester, which is next month.

There are all sorts of emotions that surface at times like this. When I joined the faculty at what was then just SPEA–the School of Public and Environmental Affairs–I was conflicted about my separation from the Indiana affiliate of the ACLU, which I had directed for the preceding six years. (You can know that it is time for a change, and still be emotionally connected to a position. It’s like realizing that your baby has grown up and needs to be independent.)

Teaching at the university–my “portfolio” was law and public policy–has taught me so much. Far more, I’m sure, than I was able to impart to my students. Those students, by and large (there were definitely exceptions) gave me reason to hope for a kinder, better country and world–as I have said in many of the posts to this blog, I would turn the world over to the younger generation in a heartbeat! They didn’t always come into my classes with sound understandings of America’s history or legal traditions (okay, that’s being kind), but they came with good values and open hearts, and a desire to make the world better.

One of the things I will always be grateful for was the freedom the school gave me to design my classes and create new ones. Aside from my “Law and Public Affairs” classes, I created and taught Media and Public Affairs–originally, as a team teaching effort with Jim Brown, the then-Dean of the Journalism School, and later with others, including John Mutz, former Lieutenant Governor of Indiana. (I used to say it was a new preparation every year, because it was a different media every year…)

There were several other courses that I made up. One of my favorites was “Individual Rights and the Common Good,” basically a philosophy of government course.

I’ve just begun going through the detritus of the past twenty years, and I found my notes for that class. I was struck by the fact that the issues it focused upon were the same ones that consume discussions on this blog: what is government for? If–as Aristotle said–the good society is one that facilitates human flourishing–what should such a society look like? What do we mean by “human flourishing”? How should such a society be governed? What is the common good?

And of course, there is the constant question of balance–what concessions must  individual rights make to the maintenance of the common good? (Could there be a better example of that tension than the one we see in the current, ugly politicization of mask wearing?)

As I leafed through my teaching binder for Individual Rights and the Common Good, I scanned the readings I’d assigned–beginning with Aristotle, proceeding through De Tocqueville and Rawls, Feinberg and MacIntyre and ending with several Supreme Court cases that put legal flesh on the philosophical “bones” of theory.

As I scanned the readings, I was struck once again by De Tocqueville’s observation that “Individualism is likewise dangerous to society because when a large segment of the population is isolated and indifferent to the welfare of those around them, they become unwilling and then unable to band together to prevent tyranny.” In my classes, we discussed this observation, the important differences between individualism and selfishness, and the meaning of De Tocqueville’s next sentences: “Equality puts men side by side without a common link to hold them firm. Despotism raises barriers to keep them apart.”

I will really miss hearing what my students think about America’s prospects in the wake of our recent, close encounter with despotism. For that matter, I will miss my students. A lot.

But when it’s time, it’s time.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.