03 May 2006
by Christopher Lee
Chris Myers Asch, shown working with student Oryan Griffin, wants US Congress to establish a civilian leadership university modelled after military service academies. (Courtesy Of Chris Myers Asch via Washington Post) Washington, DC, USA:
Teach for America veteran Chris Myers Asch has done his bit for public service. After teaching fifth- and sixth-graders for three years in Sunflower County, Miss., as part of the non-profit teacher-recruiting programme, Asch helped create and lead an organization that mentors the impoverished region's teenagers and assists them in getting into college. Along the way, he completed his PhD in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Now Asch and like-minded colleagues are taking up an even bigger challenge: trying to persuade Congress to establish and fund a civilian leadership university modelled after the nation's military service academies.
The proposed United States Public Service Academy would offer an all-expenses-paid education to 5,000 undergraduates. Its liberal arts curriculum would emphasize leadership development, analytical thinking and service to others, with requirements for summer service internships and a year of study abroad.
Graduates would be required to work for five years in public service. They could choose from jobs in state, local or federal government, law enforcement, public health, education or non-profit organizations.
"The idea is, you promote and you try to create an intensive campus culture of service, where everybody is oriented philosophically towards the same goals," said Asch, 33, who lives in Sunflower County.
"It's about getting people to see public service in a different way," he said. "We've grown up in a time when the word 'public' has become synonymous with 'inferior' and 'poor,' and that's got to change. We need to reorient our sense of public service and our sense of what it means to serve this country."
On a practical level, the academy would make public service more affordable for many students by removing loan debt, he said. But unlike graduates of the military academies, whose salaries are paid by the federal government, graduates of the public service academy would have to find a job and negotiate salaries with employers.
Asch and friend Shawn Raymond, 34, a fellow Teach for America alum and co-founder of the Sunflower County Freedom Project, the mentoring group, came up with the idea for the academy after taking note of the bureaucratic failures in the handling of Hurricane Katrina. That, as well as government errors before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, convinced the men that the country needs an institution that emphasizes civic engagement and inspires a new generation of leaders.
"What a great way to elevate in the public's mind the worthiness of these types of professions," said Raymond, now a partner in a Houston law firm. "It allows people to see that public service is valued by this country, and that in some ways it is as important as serving your country through the military."
At the moment, the service academy is little more than a Web site ( www.uspublicserviceacademy.org ) and a 15-page proposal that Asch and Raymond are shopping to kindred spirits in politics, academia, and the non-profit and business worlds. They hope to assemble a broad-based group of backers, then pitch the idea to Congress, most likely early next year, Raymond said.
The concept is not new. George Washington proposed the idea of a national university in his first State of the Union speech, Asch said. In the late 1980s, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker led a commission on public service that developed a similar recommendation.
Those proposals went nowhere, and indications are that this one will face considerable challenges as well. Asch and Raymond estimate the cost of an academy based in Washington at $205 million annually. That is sure to be a tough sell in an era of tight budgets, Republican political control and general scepticism about the size and skill of the federal bureaucracy, analysts said.
"It's not a bad idea. I just don't think it has much of a chance for passage," said Paul C. Light, a professor of government at New York University. "I just don't think Congress and the president think that the civil service is the best place to go for the nation's most talented young people… I can't imagine that Congress would allocate any hard dollars to this kind of activity."
Another hurdle, Light said, will be convincing lawmakers that the many colleges and universities that offer degree programmes in public affairs, government and public administration are not enough. "One could argue that the academy already exists in hundreds of destinations that are already out there, funded and operated," he said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Government Reform Committee, said the idea is intriguing, especially as the federal government could face a wave of retirements in its aging workforce over the next few years.
"We do need to encourage and inspire more young people to get involved in public service," Van Hollen said. "I don't want to discourage them from pursuing this proposal because I do think this is worth exploring. I do think that in the current political climate -- which many of us hope will change -- it would be tough going."
Asch and Raymond say lawmakers should think of existing public affairs departments at colleges as the equivalent of campus-based ROTC programs. The public service academy, in contrast, would offer a higher-profile, more intense experience, akin to that at West Point or Annapolis.
"It will put civilian service on par with military service and say, 'You want to serve your country? Here's the chance,' " Asch said.