I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. As the Covid-19 crisis continues, here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

More than ever, higher ed has a role to play in preparing students for public service.

If the past seven months have shown us anything, certainly the importance of functional governments has got to be high on the list. It’s also why I’ve been eager to explore how the pandemic has affected several efforts that encourage college students to embrace public service and careers in government.

Here’s the short version: While the health and economic crises have interrupted and limited some of these projects logistically, fundamentally student and institutional interest in them seems to be stirred, not deterred. In California, eight colleges are pressing ahead with a state-backed Civic Action Fellowship program, the Volcker Alliance is helping Arizona State University create new versions of its Public Service Academy at several other major universities, and the Phi Beta Kappa Society awarded its first 20 scholarshipsin a programto promote public service. More interesting is the ways the pandemic could make these efforts — and the institutions behind them — more relevant.

The stirred interest in public service is, in itself, kind of striking to me. When I first wrote about the Volcker Alliance trying to make government work seem sexy to young people, I considered its mission a noble but uphill battle, largely because Republicans have so denigrated government service for 40 years and because the private and nonprofit sectors have seemed a more attractive alternative.

But today we’re in a very different place. As Tom Ross, the alliance’s president, put it to me recently, the pandemic has heightened everyone’s awareness of the role of government. “It’s right in their face, the good and the bad,” he said.

No argument there. Surely I’m not the only one haunted by how many fewer American lives might have been lost, fewer families evicted, fewer workers left unemployed, and fewer businesses crushed if we had had a more coherent, coordinated strategy at the national, state, and local level from the get-go, even recognizing that our corrosive politics amplified the chaotic government response. (Don’t get me started on that.)

Ross lent an added dimension to my thinking. The pandemic, he said, has shown people “the need for innovation and creativity.” Those have not necessarily been the first traits that people associate with government, he added, but that’s exactly why the alliance is trying to get more colleges involved in encouraging their most ambitious and talented students to work in it.

The alliance had hoped an in-person convening with a couple dozen universities at Arizona State University in April would be the public kickoff of its new public-service efforts at colleges. The virus had other ideas. So now, in conjunction with ASU’s school of public service, it’s developing the Next Generation Service Partnership, mostly through webinars and other online tools.

The formation of public-service academies at other universities is the most tangible element of this effort. Over the next year, public-policy schools at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, Georgia State University, Indiana University at Bloomington, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha will each receive $100,000 from the alliance to create undergraduate-focused programs that teach students the theory and practice of public service. ASU’s school, which began its public-service academy six years ago and now enrolls 650 students representing more than 170 different majors, will be providing advice.

The alliance hopes additional schools will create similar programs in future years. Ross said the goal of these programs, and other projects, is to “instill public-service values” that students could take back to their peers.

The breadth and flexibility of the programs suit them to the Covid-19 era.

ASU’s academy won’t necessarily be the template for the other colleges, but I can see why its approach, particularly its broader focus on the role of sectors beyond government, might be especially worth copying right now. Students need to understand how the business and nonprofit sectors fit into the public-policy picture, the dean, Jonathan Koppell, told me. One of-the-moment example: the challenge of developing and deploying a Covid-19 vaccine. “You’d fail,” Koppell said, if you didn’t know something about the pharmaceutical industry and only understood how the government operates.

The alliance remains committed to the mission of building a pipeline of college graduates to government service. ASU’s academy isn’t as religious on that angle. If they decide to work for the government, that‘s great, said Koppell. But the academy’s main goal, he said, is for graduates to feel that “public service is going to be their life, not necessarily their job.”

California’s Civic Action Fellowship, though modeled after a partnership that Dominican University of California had developed with the nearby city of Novato, also takes the broader view of public service. Like the Volcker project, this too was well underway pre-pandemic, including a February announcement in Sacramento where the eight inaugural university participants were announced. (In addition to Dominican, they are: California Lutheran University; the University of the Pacific; the Berkeley and Merced campuses of the University of California; and the Los Angeles, San Jose, and Stanislaus campuses of California State University.)

California was enjoying a budget surplus when the fellowships were announced. The pandemic changed that. Nonetheless, the state’s allocation of $2 million for the program — mostly to support students — survived the spring budget cutting, an outcome Dominican’s president Mary Marcy called “a significant statement for the state.” The program also taps federal AmeriCorps funding.

As originally conceived, about 250 students were slated to participate. Marcy said the challenge of rejiggering the on-site internships in the midst of pandemic forced Dominican to scale that back by more than half, and I suspect many of the other colleges are in the same boat. But she said the commitment to making it work is no less fervent. Dominican, for one, will be focusing the program on first-year students, offering both curricular elements — they designed it with “academic heft,” she said — and opportunities for direct service in areas like tutoring and health counseling via local nonprofits.

Each of the participating colleges designed its program to suit local needs, and Josh Fryday, California’s chief service officer (yeah, that’s a thing; Cabinet-level there, even) said the “built in flexibility will allow it to be successful in the Covid era.” If anything, he told me this week, the pandemic has heightened the importance of the program, especially considering how older people have been isolated from their friends and families because of the pandemic and younger students have had their education disrupted. As he put it: “There’s a huge role for service members to play in connecting people.”

Just as the pandemic scuttled the in-person convening at ASU and a planned June meeting in Washington, D.C., for the inaugural recipients of the Phi Beta Kappa scholarships, I suspect the pandemic will also throw a wrench in the plans for the Civic Action fellows to get together in person later this academic year to share stories of their experiences. Yet even as Covid-19 has scuttled those plans, it may have sparked something bigger. Fryday, for example, says the crisis may be inspiring students to action. “People,” he said, “want to be asked by their leaders to do something positive and contribute.”

Maybe that should hold true for institutions, too. Certainly Koppell sees it that way — for reasons both practical and high-minded. “This is a way to attract students to something that is meaningful and important,” he told me, and a way for institutions to be seen as “existing to address the greatest challenges in their communities.”

I’d like to think they’re both on to something. But since March, I’ve worried that students will now be deterred from careers in fields like nursing or teaching because they might decide that these jobs just aren’t worth the hassles or the health risks or be turned off by what looked like government disregard for their safety. These public-service projects represent a far more optimistic outlook than my own, and they align perfectly with the burgeoning movement calling for expansion of national service at the federal level. Whether that funding comes or not, for the sake of our country, I hope the optimism prevails.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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