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Monday, May 27, 2024
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SPA turns 90 graphic

‘SPA evolves as the world does’: celebrating 9 decades of learning

Students and faculty reflect on the school’s transformation over the years

From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2024 print edition. You can find the digital version here

Neil Kerwin thought he was finished with American University when he graduated from the School of Public Affairs in 1971. He had no idea he’d return as a faculty member, get promoted to acting dean, then dean, acting provost and eventually serve as president of AU from 2005 to 2017. 

“I had never expected to be back,” Kerwin told The Eagle in an interview. “I didn’t have any idea where I would end up, but [AU] offered me the position and I took it, and as they say, the rest is history.”

Currently, Kerwin teaches public administration and policy in the same building where his journey began, the Ward Circle Building, which would be renamed Kerwin Hall in 2017 in his honor. 

The past

After AU was chartered by Congress in 1893, SPA was founded at the height of the Great Depression in 1934 with a $4,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation — roughly $93,000 today adjusted for inflation. The program’s goal was to provide training to 80 federal government employees who showed potential in downtown D.C. Less than 50 years later, enrollment exceeded 1,000 students, and in 1976 the downtown campus moved to AU’s current Tenleytown campus. 

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at the inauguration of AU Chancellor Joseph M. M. Gray. 

“​​Among the universities of the land, American University is yet young, but you have a great future — a great opportunity for initiative, for constructive thinking, for practical idealism and for national service,” Roosevelt said at the inauguration. 

The present

As SPA celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, students and faculty reflect on their time with the school, along with its growth and development over nine decades. 

The school currently houses three departments: Public Administration and Policy, Government and Justice, Law and Criminology, as well as 13 centers and institutes. 

“It doesn’t feel like three separate departments in the school. It feels like one team that’s part of SPA that’s moving forward with our mission,” Patrick Malone, the director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs and an executive-in-residence in SPA, said in an interview.

Malone has been a member of the AU community since 1997 when he was a PhD student.

“I’ve seen a place that has just gotten more and more impactful for our students, for our communities, for all of the fields of study that are represented in the three departments,” Malone said. “The school is just home to some remarkable researchers and scholars and teachers and staff. It’s all one team.”

Kareem Jordan, an associate professor in Justice, Law and Criminology, is SPA’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“Even though there wasn’t this formal position prior to spring 2020, SPA, the faculty, the students especially, had been doing this work since well before that time,” Jordan said in an interview.

He said his goals for SPA include recruiting and retaining more students of color, implementing course readings written by a diverse range of authors and drafting a schoolwide strategic DEI plan that is “grounded in inclusive excellence.” He also wants to increase the number of students in the new Race, Justice and Politics minor.  

Interim Dean Alison Jacknowitz said that in the 20 years since she has been at AU, the school has strengthened the policy area, adding focuses on data science and a Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy program. 

“We are doing a lot of innovative research that can inform policy in the community,” Jacknowitz said. “We want our faculty to do their research, but we also want them to take their research to the community so that it can have a broader impact.”

She added that an identifying feature of SPA students is their passion for social causes and organizations.

“The students just keep getting better and better. More qualified, stronger, more passionate about what they believe in,” Jacknowitz said. 

Ron Elving, an executive-in-residence and professional lecturer in the Department of Government, echoed admiration for SPA students’ enthusiasm for learning. He said that he looks to students to “bring fresh eyes and fresh energy” to the study of government and the governing of the country. 

“I’ve been very happy with the student body and the degree of seriousness on the part of the students,” Elving said. “I hope I’m anywhere near as valuable to my students as they are to me.”

Senior Paulina Tes, the current president of the SPA Undergraduate Council – which aims to “serve and assist SPA students in reaching their full potential” – explained an initiative by the SPA Undergraduate Council which created a class competition for students to design and submit new classes as part of the SPA Changemakers program. A one-credit course on reproductive justice, designed by SPA senior Kyra Thordsen, came out of this.

“SPA is doing such a good job at making sure that the curriculum stays current and designing the curriculum in a way where it's interesting to learn about and you're able to apply it to things that are going on right now in the real world,” Tes said in an interview. “SPA evolves as the world does.”

The future

In 2023, the U.S. News and World Report ranked SPA as #10 among public affairs graduate schools. SPA’s centennial anniversary will be in 2034, and faculty expressed their hopes for more evolution of the school. 

“The world has changed a great deal since 1934, but I suspect the world is going to change a great deal more than that in the next 90 years,” Elving said. “I would love to think that there would be an SPA in 90 years and we’ll be doing something similar and recognizable to what the original mission was and what our mission is today.”

Kerwin said he has faith in the future of SPA and the University as a whole.

“We’re at the epicenter of where change occurs,” Kerwin said. “You don’t survive long in this kind of environment without being innovative, and conscientious and smart. I think AU has always been that.” 

This article was edited by Sam Skolnick, Abigail Turner and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis, Sarah Clayton, Ariana Kavoossi and Charlie Mennuti.

features@theeagleonline.com 


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