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Debate considers pros, cons of public service academy

By Hallie Jordan     2/5/09 6:00pm

[Editor's Note: This story's original online posting attributed all of U.S. Public Service Academy Co-Founder Shawn Raymond's quotes to his partner, Chris Myers Asch, who was not present at the debate. The story has been updated to rectify the mistake (Sunday, Feb. 15)]The United States has five universities dedicated to military service but none for public civilian service. Advocates of this idea, Shawn Raymond, co-founder of the U.S. Public Service Academy, and Philip Levy, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, discussed the pros and cons of the creation of such an academy in a debate held in the Rice Memorial Center Tuesday.

Raymond, who volunteered for Teach for America in 1994 and was placed in a poor public school in Mississippi, quit his job and began campaigning for a United States Public Service Academy along with Chris Myers Asch, another TFA volunteer who was placed in the same school. He said having a school devoted to public service would help fill government jobs and put people with better educations in them.

Subsequently the United States would have a stronger bureaucracy, more capable of dealing with nationwide crises such as the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

"The mission statement is to educate, develop and inspire young people, with a focus on character, intellect and service," Raymond said. "It is unlike any mission statement you have seen for any other school."

Raymond said the academy would make the government be viewed as cool. He said he feels the negative way in which people generally view government jobs could lead to disinterest in participating in the military service.

"We need to attack perception," Raymond said. "The message we [currently] communicate to young people is that somehow working in the public sector is beneath you. Most want to work in a private sector or for a nonprofit."

Levy said the problem with government jobs lies within the bureaucratic system since low paychecks, small chances of promotion and no glorification make government jobs unappealing.

A survey conducted in 2006 with 32,000 undergrads reported that, when given an option of what kind of work they were interested in, 17 percent - the largest percent - chose government and public service. This data suggests that interest and spirit is fairly high among students. The problem lies with the retention of workers due to dissatisfaction.

"The problem is you get young people who come to the government, and it can be frustrating for them," Levy said. "People who are really talented get job offers from other places who say: 'You want to be a mover and shaker, don't waste time in bureaucracy, come to private sector and we'll pay you more.'"

A public service academy, he said, would not attract the highest qualified students, who, knowing they could get higher paying jobs in private sectors, would continue to attend top universities already in existence. The academy, then, is not the answer for filling government jobs but rather for fixing the existing bureaucratic system.

"The bright, eager student can say 'I can serve the country with a job nobody wants or I can go to a top quality institution [already in existence] and get great training which gives me a lot of options,'" Levy said. "We need to fix the problem of retention and make the government more attractive."

The debate presented both sides to the argument for audience members to mull over.

"Before today I really thought that we should have a service academy, but after today I don't think this is right for our country," Martel College sophomore Rhodes Coffey said. "The point that was made that most of the positions that would be offered would be positions that others don't want changed my mind. However, I really admire both points and I really thought it was a great idea."

After reading about Raymond and Asch's idea, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton created a bill in Congress supporting the academy that has 123 House members backing it along with seven Cabinet members.

For Raymond, the government can be made more attractive via an improvement in inspiration and interest with an academy providing a good education and a strong focus.

"If we can create this very unique culture and atmosphere that says leadership development, public service, sacrifice and duty and honor are going to be the sole mission of this place, we think we are going to attract a fantastic student body," Raymond said.

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