Too Many Walls?

Too Many Walls?

The Obligation for University Public Service Programs to Create Discord, Redefine Access, and Facilitate Unsafe Space


Remarks Prepared for the American Society for Public Administration Super Session Panel, “The Role of Public Service in American Universities in the Future,”

21 March 2016

Thomas A. Bryer, PhD

We have too many walls in our society. Not only in the United States but around the world, we have too many walls. Some walls are real, physical structures. Some are imaginary but psychologically as real as the physical.

Too many walls already exist, and there is popular sentiment to construct new walls: a physical wall on the US southern border to keep out the Mexicans, a bureaucratic wall in immigration offices to keep out Muslims, fences and walls within Europe and entering European territory to slow or prevent the free movement of refugees, a wall on the US northern border to keep Americans out of Canada… that last one is a joke… I think.

We have walls around our neighborhoods, with gated communities. A few years ago, in a Florida community, a resident of such a gated community expressed a fear of the larger area becoming a full functioning municipality—a fear grounded in the perceived threat that the walls of the neighborhood would be taken down.

We have walls around our individual homes. Some are real walls in the form of fences and locked gates, sometimes with big signs that say “Stay Out. Private Property. Beware of Attack Dog.” Some are symbolic walls, which we know exist looking at social science survey data. Neighbors do not know neighbors; small percentages of us talk to our neighbors, help our neighbors, work with neighbors to solve community problems, or even know the names of our neighbors. At a community meeting only a few weeks ago, a woman told a story of how a neighbor was speaking to her on her front porch, suffered a heart attack, and died, right there on her porch. She felt guilty, because when paramedics arrived, she could not tell them the neighbor’s name.

There are walls between individuals. These are walls that prevent trust development; they are walls that reduce empathy; they are walls that make us most comfortable talking to and interacting with people who look like, think like, talk like people who are just like us. They are walls that facilitate fear when confronted with people who are considered as “others” or “outsiders” or people from the wrong side of the wall, the wrong neighborhood, the wrong religion, the wrong race, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong gender, the wrong sexuality, the wrong nationality, the wrong ideology, the wrong political party, and so on.

Our Facebook and other social media walls are constructed as such. They are not walls akin to bulletin boards to post photographs and reminder notes, celebrations and announcements. They are walls that create separation masked as popularity contests: whose post gets the most likes? Whose life is the most successful as measured by social media self-promotion? These walls create jealousies, and we know through research that they can create loneliness, isolation, and they can exacerbate social divisions. Our social media friends tend to be people who agree with us. When our posts are liked, they are liked by a chorus of like-minded individuals who occupy similar social and economic strata. We must be clear: the Facebook wall is as much a wall of division as the walls barricading our neighborhoods, our national borders, our homes and our minds. It is the same kind of wall as exists between universities of exceptional standing and the rest of society.

Here is my walk-away conclusion: universities, and specifically public service programs at universities, must take as a mission to breakdown walls within their institutions and between their institutions and the broader community. They must take as part of their mission to create discord by upsetting the safety of life behind walls; they must redefine the idea of access to university education to include not only access for underserved populations to become enrolled students to earn degrees; access means taking the educational process outside the walls and confines of tuition-paying or fee-generating students.

Public service programs must take as part of their mission to eliminate the idea of safe space in the university, because when we aim to build social capital, enhance empathy, cultivate more active and ethical citizens, and develop socially responsible entrepreneurs, we are aiming to dismantle the walls that divide us. With such an aim, safety that does not lead to critical self-reflection, questioning of one’s values, questioning of one’s upbringing, and challenging one’s deepest held biases, is not possible nor desirable.

The way to get here, to a place where public service programs in universities are deconstructing walls and forging new ties, requires some critical actions. I discuss several of these in more depth in my book, Higher Education beyond Job Creation: Universities, Citizenship, and Community, published with Lexington Books.

Our ability to achieve our intended aims requires that we fundamentally change the way we think about and operationalize the way we teach, the way we research, and the way we serve. If we remain stuck behind the narrative of the economic rationale of the university, we will box ourselves in, indeed inside a rather oppressive set of walls.

This is where we start. There are four dominant narratives about the role of universities: the economic rationale to create jobs, the economic rationale to develop skills of the workforce of today and the future, the knowledge production and dissemination rationale, and the citizen cultivation rationale. If we treat each narrative on its own, as we often do, we have internally divided universities pursuing these individual goals and competing for scarce resources to achieve them.

The narrative we must create, and we are in a powerful position within public service programs to lead the way, is a narrative that recognizes the legitimacy of each individual narrative but also recognizes the bigger narrative, the larger goal that can be achieved if we do not operate in silos but operate with integrated purpose. The bigger purpose is stronger communities and the guaranteed opportunity for all people to pursue the good life.

Let me give an example. Advocates of the economic rationales of the university often, as part of their argument to reallocate scarce resources, disparage the other legitimate aims that exist. They draw a line in the sand; they create wall of separation, and say that the “others” are not legitimate functions of the university. Consultants to a task force convened by Florida’s Governor Rick Scott asked in a report what they considered a serious question. They observed that in the past 50 years or so, there have been more than 35,000 published articles and books about Shakespeare or the work of Shakespeare; they asked, presumably with a straight face, would not the first 1,000 or even 100 have been enough? How does such activity contribute to the creation of jobs, they asked.

I can give more examples, and they appear both in the political sphere in the battle for funding of public universities, as well as in scholarship. Suffice to say here that the battle lines have been drawn, the walls erected, and the outcome is what one observer wrote as institutions that are not uni-versities but multi-versities, institutions that serve multiple masters without coherence.

If we aim to improve the lot of public service programs in our universities, we must simultaneously use the language of the dominant narrative of economic rationale while seeking to change the implementation of that narrative and to change the narrative itself to be more integrative of all other legitimate narratives.

For example, when our universities are asked to report statistics on average alumni salaries within the first 5 years of graduation—a common category of metric for performance funding of universities—we must advocate more nuanced measures that recognize the human value of lower-wage public service careers. When asked to report how many new businesses have been launched by alumni, we must advocate to include how many nonprofit organizations have been launched.

When we are asked for measures of Return on Investment that include financial metrics alone, we must advocate for measures of Return on Engagement that include organizational, policy, and social measures. ROI asks what financial return we get when we invest our financial and human capital in certain research enterprises; ROE asks what policies, procedures, relationships, and ultimately lives change when we put our professors, staff, and students directly in the community as part of the research, teaching, and service processes.

Universities have tremendous human capital potential. At the University of Central Florida, the second largest university in the United States by enrollment with approximately 63,000 students, we are surrounded by communities that have significant need. In the three counties around the university, we have approximately 15,000 homeless students kindergarten through twelfth grade. These are students who do not have a stable and permanent place to sleep at night; some sleep outside, some in cars, some in short-term motels, and some move from friend to friend night after night. The human capital potential of the university is made clear when we do some simple math; if we divide all UCF students into groups of 4, and each group commits to providing support, mentoring, and encouragement to 1 homeless student, we can go a long way to breaking any multi-generational cycle of poverty that exists within this population.

You might say, yes, this sounds good, but that will never happen. I will not be naïve and ask, “but why not?!” I agree, it will not happen. However, our potential to achieve a high ROE, Return on Engagement, is real, when we commit to both breakdown the walls within our universities, eliminate the walls between our universities and our communities, and to help facilitate the removal of walls and prevent the construction of new walls between neighborhoods, neighbors, and nations.

As an association of public service professionals, with international membership and recognition, the American Society for Public Administration is in a powerful position to change the narrative of the university that is dominant today, and to ensure fairness to public service programs in the narrative that is now being predominantly implemented. ASPA can highlight innovative practices in public service programs around the globe; it can provide reward and recognition to policymakers who go against the grain to promote public service and broader public good purposes of universities; it can celebrate global partnerships that encourage multi-cultural understanding, such as the program funded by Seoul Metropolitan Government and the University of Seoul and that includes numerous American universities in cultural and educational exchange.

I suggest that ASPA establish a strategic priority to ensure the narrative about the role of university education maintains faithfulness to public service programs and public service professionals. Establish a strategic taskforce to develop specific actionable steps that can be taken with policymakers, the media, and other stakeholders with influence, and do so in coordination as, perhaps a joint taskforce, that includes our friends in ARNOVA, NASPAA, APPAM, AOM, PRMA, and others. ASPA can take the lead in coordinating like-minded associations, to breakdown some pretty low walls as a demonstration of what can be done if we fight to prevent the more dangerous walls in our society from remaining in place or being built ever higher.

Thank you.



Are We STUCk? Standing Together: Universities and Communities

Today I had the great please of delivering a keynote talk at the 7th Annual Public Administration Research Conference at UCF. My title was Are We STUCk? Download my remarks; I am happy for your feedback and ideas!

Are We STUCk_Page_1

Presentation on Joined Up Service Learning

Today I am at the 23rd International Conference on College Teaching and Learning. I will be receiving an award over lunch for Innovative Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Technology. After lunch, I will be giving a presentation on a unique model of collaborative service learning I have been developing for the past couple of years. The model involved my graduate students partnering with students at a high school in a low-income community. The benefits: empowered graduate and high school students, recommendations for strengthening community based on sound data collection and analysis, and students with greater skills in research and community action. Download the presentation here, or click the link below.


Top 5 Coolest Moments in my Tenure Track Career (as a I begin the tenure and promotion process)

In 2012, I will be submitting my Tenure and Promotion portfolio. Though I won’t receive final  word on my tenure and promotion until May 2013, I will begin moving through the process in February/March 2012. The process begins with the identification of external reviewers, or tenured scholars in my discipline, who will read the file I prepare and offer their assessment. As I prepare for this journey over the next several months, I am reflecting on what I consider to be the coolest moments in my job… these may not be my biggest quantifiable achievements (e.g. grant receipt, etc), but they represent personal achievements, signified through the words of others or some other output.

Here then are my top five coolest moments, moving into my tenure and promotion period. In case it’s not clear by the time you finish reading this list, I love my job. These are presented in no particular order:

1. 2008. The Obama administration’s transition team put out a call for citizens to convene Community Health Care Discussions. I convened a forum at UCF–See a news story at–on December 22, which attracted approximately 70 people from the university and the larger Central Florida community. The report from this forum that was submitted to the White House led to one of the forum participants being invited to the 2010 State of the Union Address as a guest of the First Lady (see The submitted report was one of four, out of more than three thousand, that was highlighted in a final report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (see On all three counts–big turnout, invite to a participant to the State of the Union, and a featured spot in the final report–this is pretty cool stuff.

2. 2011. I implemented a novel approach to service learning, something I am calling “Joined Up Service Learning.” Essentially, this is a process whereby a class of my graduate students partner with a class of high school students in an under-served community to jointly conduct research on the needs of that community and to make enhancements to the community. Read the final report from students at: There is much I can say about this, and I am currently drafting a full length paper and maybe more, but the cool thing, after all the work of implementation, came when one of the high school students offered an unsolicited note of gratitude. The note read:

“Thank you for the opportunity to be part of the community school focus group process. I speak on the behalf of Evans High students when I say we appreciate your efforts to try to make our school not feel like a school, but a home, and for that we are grateful. We know that you do not have to do these things for us, most people don’t know us and don’t know how great we can be and the things we can do or our talents and hopes and dreams that we withhold. They don’t know what we go through and the pain and struggles we deal with. Evans is my home. I walk these halls and I see my brothers and sisters fall, they fall into the temptations and cruelty of this world. I see how great and stunning they are, things other people will never see. So on behalf of my family I say thank you UCF . . . Thank you.”

3. 2010. I created my alter-ego, DrBryer Brucato, in the virtual world of Second Life. Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission, I was able to teach an online undergraduate class on civic engagement, and in partnership with the UCF Institute of Government, Lou Frey Institute, and Valencia Community College, implement a poll worker training program. Students were trained to serve as poll workers for the November 2010 elections, never setting foot inside a physical location with voting equipment until Election Day. Download a Research Brief on the project at

4. 2008-2012. I am going to lump a few things into this one, and label it international. I have been fortunate to travel to conferences in Argentina and Canada, collaborate with colleagues in the United Kingdom and Canada, and publish (out in print any week now) a French-language article. The article is:

Obama et le concept de gouvernment ouvert: gage d’une gouvernance renovee ou simple bulle democratique (Translation: Democratic Processes and Institutions in the Obama Administration: An Emerging Research Agenda). Chroniques de la Gouvernance 2010/2011.Paris, France: Institut de recherche et débat sur la gouvernance. It will be available at:

That is all pretty cool.

5. 2007-2012.  I won’t lie. It’s pretty darn cool to see my work cited by others, especially by others who I perceive as leading thinkers in my discipline. It’s pretty darn cool that I read the book Government Is Us in my Masters program at George Washington University, and in the new edition, Government Is Us 2.0, my scholarship is cited… several times over. See  who has cited my work at:

6. 2007-2012. Now this was supposed to be a Top 5 list, but frankly I can’t neglect so many cool parts of my job. Working with the homeless serving community in Seminole County is an honor and a privilege (; teaching a diverse  group of talented students every semester teaches me a great deal; developing Service Learning projects to truly impact community is both a challenge and an opportunity; developing and implementing public engagement processes in the community opens my eyes and ears to the great diversity of need, ambition, and fear in the community;


receiving three teaching awards has been a great honor; serving as Chair of my college’s Faculty Council was a wonderful experience, and now Directing the Center for Public and Nonprofit Management… there are so many more opportunities to do work that is meaningful. Items 1 and 2 above are really what it’s all about for me. Giving people a chance to succeed and communities a chance to become stronger… it’s all pretty cool.

Teaching with Social Media to Empower Students and Give Courage to Faculty: A Civic Engagement Class Example

Next week, I travel to Toronto, Canada to present on a panel entitled “Utilizing technology to enhance and improve the learning experience.” The panel is being convened by the Teaching Section of the Association of Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action.

This presentation will be similar to those I have delivered in previous workshops on the use of social media in teaching. There will be two important differences in this presentation: (1) I provide more theoretical, philosophical, and instrumental rationales for the use of social media in teaching, and (2) The presentation is grounded in examples from an online civic engagement class. Additionally, I classify the examples using a framework being developed for an article that will (hopefully) be published in a symposium issue of the Journal of Public Affairs Education on social media and student empowerment.

Download the presentation here. I welcome your questions or comments.

A Politics of Hope within Public Administration

“Hope” is a powerful word. Bill Clinton ran for the presidency as the man from Hope (Arkansas); Barack Obama won the presidency largely on a theme of hope and change. As our partisan politics and legislative politics demonstrate so vividly, hope, to the extent is exists, is often fleeting. The shift from campaigning to governing, and the inter-branch political gamesmanship that is a fundamental characteristic of the governmental and governance design, tends to squash hope. Progress is hardly ever as fast or efficient as elected officials would like and certainly not as fast or efficient as attentive citizens would like. What happens after all the campaigns for office have packed up, according to one possible definition of public administration, is the work of public administration. If hope can indeed be restored and sustained, the venue for the ambitious goal is not in the White House, governor’s office, or legislative assembly. The venue is the administration, which is the institution of government closest to the people and yet is typically, given complex rules and procedures associated with an instrumental view of the field, the furthest away and least understood.

I am presenting a paper at the Southeast Conference of Public Administration in New Orleans next week that explores these ideas. Download the paper (SECOPA Paper), and please offer your feedback and ideas. As noted in the document, the paper needs significant more development. Please do not cite or distribute further without my consent.

The figure to the left summarizes the core tenets of how a politics of hope within public administration might be constituted. Administrator actions and behavior ought to be transparent, deliberative, and constitutionally grounded. If this is the case, the outcomes that are possible include the elusive goal of bridging the citizen-government divide and increasinginformed trust, increasing citizen efficacy, and increasing perceptions of government legitimacy.

What do you think?