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Credit: Kylie Cooper

This past week, in a high-profile impeachment trial involving 1968 Wharton graduate and former President Donald Trump, the United States Senate voted to acquit the former president on the charge of "incitement of insurrection." Monumental events have marked much of my adult life, as well as that of many other young people in this country — a pandemic, calls for racial justice, economic downturn, tumultuous politics. This week’s failure by our nation’s politicians to hold the former president accountable for his actions was yet another example of our government’s dearth of leadership. As an institution of national recognition, Penn has a responsibility to ensure that it is cultivating a new generation of leaders, which can most effectively be accomplished through the creation of a new school of public service.

Penn already has a burgeoning reputation as the “civic Ivy.” Though this title was primarily maintained by student-led organizations back in 2015, since the 2016 election, Penn has ramped up its investment in public service programs like the Perry World House, Penn Leads the Vote, and the Penn Biden Center. Coupled with a rise in student interest in politics, Penn’s student body has become increasingly politically active, and this reputation has even begun to attract prospective students.

Yet, despite this increased political interest within the student body, Penn still lacks the centralization of civic resources compared to its peer institutions. Penn’s public service resources are spread across different administrative structures and funding schemes — from Wharton’s Lauder Institute to the Fels Institute of Government to the Annenberg Public Policy Center. This decentralization prevents the collaboration of students with similar interests and leads to lost funding opportunities, such as the defunding of the Wharton Public Policy Initiative.

Though politics-related majors are fairly popular at Penn, humanities and social science majors have seen a significant decline over the past decade, and an abysmal 2% of the graduating class of 2020 was employed in the field of government. On the other hand, business and engineering fields students — who have their own graduate and undergraduate schools at Penn — make up a whopping 66% of that same graduating class in finance, consulting, and tech alone. 

The plethora of resources afforded to business and tech at Penn sends a signal to the student body: These fields are valued. As a result, Penn’s pre-professional culture, fostered by programs such as on-campus recruiting, has diverted potential public servants. This forgoing of public service isn’t unique to Penn, though. Even Harvard Kennedy School graduates have strayed away from careers in the public sector. 

The lack of young people in government isn't just a Penn issue. According to College junior Kaitlyn Rentala, author of the forthcoming book, “The Public Sector Pivot: How Gen Z Will Lead a Renaissance in Public Service,” this is a widespread problem. “Currently, young people are severely underrepresented in public service. In the United States, only 7% of federal government employees are under the age of 30, compared to 23% in the private sector. The numbers are even worse in tech. In some government agencies, like in the Department of Veteran Affairs, the number of tech specialists over 60 outnumber their under-30 counterparts 19-to-1.”

Penn is uniquely positioned to be the forebearer of a renewed commitment to public service among elite higher educational institutions. Penn’s many opportunities for interdisciplinary experiences would easily facilitate cooperation with Penn’s other schools — not to mention the opportunities for dual degrees. Additionally, the University’s influence in Philadelphia, a city crucial to the nation’s founding and its current politics, strengthens ties with city government and locally-based public service opportunities. Philadelphia’s proximity to D.C. already allows a small cohort of undergraduates to engage with public interest careers through the Penn in Washington program, but the creation of a school of public service could create even more opportunities for Penn students in Washington. 

The creation of a school of public service would be a powerful step that Penn could take to recognize and develop this growing culture of a civic-minded student body. With this novel school, the administrative and academic structures for public-interest work would become streamlined, allowing for the expansion of research, internship funding, global engagement, and civic literacy. There is also a campus-culture aspect to this proposal. Centralizing Penn’s current public service offerings would go a long way toward building a community of undergraduates, graduates, and faculty that emphasizes the value of public service and connects current students with alumni pursuing careers in public service.

As we continue to see failures of political leadership and a deepening partisan divide in this country, Penn needs to make good on this “civic Ivy” moniker and materially emphasize public service in its curriculum. As our world faces unprecedented challenges, Penn students are ready and willing to meet them — but it is up to Penn to support them in doing so.

JAMES NYCZ is a College senior studying political science and classical studies from Yardley, Pa. He is the president of Penn’s Chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science honor society, and his email is jnycz@sas.upenn.edu.

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