Political program trims director hunt

by Andrea Vittorio

Photo courtesty of Maxine Isaacs | Photo courtesty of Mark Kennedy
Left: Maxine Isaacs, Right: Mark Kennedy

The Graduate School of Political Management has whittled the pool of candidates for its next executive director down to four political and press mavens, nearly one year after initiating the search.

In the second attempt to name a new leader for the school of practical politics, former U.S. Rep Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., four-time press secretary Maxine Isaacs, former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y. and an undisclosed sub-cabinet official in the Obama administration are being considered for the high-profile administrative role.

University Provost Steven Lerman, together with outgoing College of Professional Studies Dean Kathleen Burke and her successor Ali Eskandarian, aim to make a decision by January based on input from a committee of administrators, faculty, students and alumni.

Forrest Maltzman, chair of the search committee and senior vice provost for academic affairs and planning, said the final set of contenders will make for a difficult decision.

“Each of these four not only had a great deal of experience in the political world but each of them had a ton of ideas about the program, what we should be doing to it, and it was really very invigorating,” Maltzman said.

In on-campus forums held over the last two weeks, all four candidates stressed the need to strengthen the profile of the school, expand its international presence, better engage students and add more full-time faculty to the program, which currently relies primarily on adjuncts.

Kennedy, who teaches a course on business in the political age at the University of Maryland’s business school, emphasized his international teaching experience as a jumping point for forging new partnerships toward "raising your sights, raising your profile and raising your money" for the school.

“I have zero interest in being in the second-best graduate school of political management,” he said. “I have only real interest in working with the best graduate school of political management.”

As a member of Congress from 2001 to 2007, Kennedy developed a strong record for bipartisan bill-backing. After leaving the role, he co-founded the Economic Club of Minnesota, a speech venue for business and political leaders and a testament to Kennedy’s ability to fundraise.

He has taught courses on business and politics in France and Turkey and he has guest lectured in Brazil, Germany, England, Qatar and Singapore.

Paulo Prochno, associate chair of the Department of Management and Organization at the University of Maryland’s business school, said Kennedy was “much more interactive” than the average adjunct professor.

As the first female press secretary to a major campaign under Walter Mondale, Isaacs brings a stronger focus on public policy and strategic communications.

She served as an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Political Management from 1994 to 1995 and now acts as a lecturer on government at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. In an on-campus presentation last week, Isaacs highlighted her ability to bring in big-name guest lecturers and speakers as a way to build the school’s reputation.

With an election year approaching, Isaacs said the graduate program can act as “a convening authority” to start a conversation about how to mend the political divide.

“It seems to me that the school is almost perfectly positioned to jump into the middle of this debate and to potentially play a very important role,” she said.

Fellow Harvard professor Marvin Kalb, who also hosts a monthly talk show with the GW Global Media Institute, said Isaacs has “an easy way of communicating” and is a “very successful teacher.”

In a discussion this week, the White House administrator, who asked not to be named to protect relationships at his current job, set goals to improve teaching, elevate the academic reputation of the practical program and create new opportunities for applied research.

“I spend my days doing what GSPM students spend their nights learning,” the candidate said. “But in addition to being a political manager, I’m also a teacher and a scholar.”

A major focus of the candidate’s pitch was the need to reach out to the Council on American Politics – the funding and advisory arm of the graduate program – as an untapped source of scholarships and curriculum reform.

Lazio, who does not officially consider himself a candidate, said he wants to learn more about the program and feel out its climate before potentially making a pledge to its future.

The New York native earned national attention in 2000 when he made an unsuccessful bid against Hillary Clinton for one of New York’s seats in the U.S. Senate. After spending five years at financial services firm J.P. Morgan facilitating global ties, he ran for governor of New York in 2010 but pulled out shortly after the Republican primary.

After exploring the idea of being director in a talk with students, alumni and faculty, Lazio said he sensed the “competitive pressure to up the game of the school.”

“I think any candidate that considers this [job] is going to evaluate whether or not they think they’ve got an excellent chance of success,” he said. “And you can only, in my view, be successful to the extent that the University and the students, alums, faculty and other supporters are all pulling in the same direction and are willing to do more than they’ve done before.”

The committee spent two months trimming the list of potentials from about 27 to four through a series of interviews and meetings. The group will meet with the provost to make a final recommendation.

The school scrapped the initial search process last February after months of vocal criticism from the Graduate School of Political Management community. With broadened committee membership, the assistance of an outside search firm and an altered job description, the resumed search sought to attract a more diverse array of candidates that combine academic and professional experience.

Since the launch of the original search, the leadership of the school has undergone several shifts. After acting executive director Chuck Cushman abruptly resigned in April, professor of political management Dennis Johnson, who was on leave as a Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer in China at the time, assumed the post temporarily.

As head of the college that oversees the graduate political school, Burke received the brunt of complaints from stakeholders who said they were shut out of the first search despite repeated efforts to voice their thoughts on the future of the program.

She discredited the claims and defended her commitment to the success of the program, saying she worked hard to fix existing issues related to fundraising and declining enrollments.

Burke announced in October that she would step down from her role as dean at the end of this semester and assume a new role as senior adviser for nontraditional and distance learning under one of the University’s three vice provosts. She served as dean for three years.

The University made a push during the second search to include a broader demographic profile of candidates. All six of the final candidates interviewed during the last search were white males. All four of the candidates in this round are also white, with Isaacs as the sole representative of females.

Students and faculty in attendance at the forums underlined the need for magnetism in the school’s next chief, recognizing that he or she faces a difficult task ahead.

“Whoever we choose needs to be a charismatic leader in the industry and a leader in public opinion,” Robert Myers, a master’s student in political management, said.

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