UMBC’s Walter Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars Program: One Response to the “Quiet Crisis” in Public Service

by Arthur Johnson, Political Science/ UMBC


Government and public employees come under attack and even mockery all too often, whether it be in the media, popular entertainment, commentary driven by those favoring smaller government or fearing conspiracies that will deprive us of our freedoms and/or income. In a report on the challenge of recruiting bright young people for public service, Paul Volcker (Leadership for America: Rebuilding the Public Service) wrote in 1989 of a “quiet crisis”. That challenge has not diminished in the 21st century.

As UMBC provost in the late 1990s, I sought a program that would reflect UMBC’s commitment to our community and state and make a small contribution to addressing the quiet crisis. In addition, we were also defining UMBC, especially its undergraduate program, more specifically via a strategic planning exercise. We envisioned an increasing number of students engaged with the community through service learning, internships, and interactions with community and government leaders as part of their academic experience.
One result of these activities was the creation of the Public Affairs Scholars Program in 1999. This scholarship program was designed for talented students regardless of major who expressed an interest in a career in public service. We debated whether public service was to be defined by a government career or something broader. Ultimately, we came to emphasize that public service may be performed in a variety of settings, regardless of career or major, as part of our professional lives or in our personal lives. One does not have to work for government or a non-profit to do public service. We were more interested in instilling the values that drive the desire to serve others, to bring about social change, domestically or internationally.
The Public Affairs Scholars program became the Walter Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars program in 2002 when Mr. Sondheim consented to have UMBC honor him with the program. Mr. Sondheim’s career was an ideal model for illustrating the values of public service and dedication to the public interest. He is credited with leading Baltimore City school integration in the 1950s and driving the transformation of the Baltimore’s inner harbor, and he served on numerous boards and commissions as well as being an advisor and confidante to mayors, governors, and other leaders. Mr. Sondheim interacted with students in the program and became mentor to several. Today, we keep his memory alive by bringing in speakers who knew Walter and worked with him. We want our students to understand what a “life of purpose” looks like and the good it can accomplish, no matter their chosen career path.
The program begins with the freshman year of service and seminars in English and public policy. The Scholars’ freshman year is designed to begin the development of an ethos of a life time of public service reinforcing that which led them to accept membership in the program in the first place. We also want them to master and employ interdisciplinary tools and approaches to attacking our most difficult public policy issues. Our freshman class in public policy introduces the students to an interdisciplinary approach through its curriculum and by the fact that having scholars from different majors — engineering, mathematics, and pre-med as well as social work, health administration, the social sciences and humanities – eventually produces interdisciplinary discussions.
Our more than 100 alumni can be found in the urban classroom, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Teach for America, Habitat for Humanity, and the ministry. They work in non-profits, government at all levels, and the courtroom. They have founded organizations that represent autistic adults and transgender and bi-sexual citizens. They are studying at graduate and law schools throughout the nation and overseas. Fulbright Scholars and a Truman Scholar were Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars at UMBC.
We have developed a four-year program that combines service with the classroom, intensive advising, and cohort and whole group experiences. These efforts were based on significant pedagogical research. Not all of our efforts worked, and some became outdated. The program continues to evolve. For example, we feel the need to develop required curriculum for juniors and seniors that will allow our Scholars to put social entrepreneurship into action or to produce research that addresses a specific policy or organizational need of a government agency or local non-profit. We also hope to enhance the international aspects of the program as more students bring those career interests with them into the program.

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UMBC Sondheim Scholars aid classmates with critiques of their speeches during their Sondheim Public Affairs Scholars Seminar. Photo by Marlayna Demond for UMBC

Many university programs employ service learning or focus on leadership. The Sondheim Scholars program, however, may be different, if not unique, in that it seeks a diversity of majors and acknowledges the different ways that the public interest may be served and the variety of forms that service may take. Most of all it explicitly argues in favor of public service and the necessity of bright capable citizens committed to serving the public filling vital public roles and involved with the formulation and implementation of public policy solutions to our most difficult problems. Even if our alumni do not choose a public service career, they report that they stay involved in providing service in some form in their personal lives through volunteering, church-sponsored activities, and other charitable activities. In effect, this is a program that will keep Walter Sondheim’s memory alive for generations to come through the actions and deeds of its alumni.
While organizations such as Maryland/DC Campus Compact seek to bring organizations and programs dedicated to public service and civic engagement together, it might be of strategic value if the many USM programs designed to promote public service, instill values of democracy and leadership in students’ thinking and behavior, or to promote community service though service learning come together to share their stories, challenges, goals and other insights. Such sharing will benefit USM’s collective efforts and Maryland will be stronger for the effort.

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