McCormack Speaks

Goodbye, Hello: Reflections on What’s Next for Public Service


by Justin Maher
McCormack Graduate School Dean’s Office

President Obama Delivers Address, 2016Tuesday night, President Obama took the stage to deliver his farewell address. In it, he painted an optimistic portrait of a nation filled with promise and people of all political stripes ready to continue to fight for an inclusive democracy. He also acknowledged that “our political dialogue has become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service.” That frightening proposition, echoed by polls that show the steady and alarming decline of trust in government, deserves serious reflection.

As the assistant dean for academic programs at McCormack, I spend a good chunk of time talking to prospective students investigating graduate school. There are a myriad of reasons why they choose to pursue graduate study. Some are coming from a bachelor’s program and want to continue to specialize in a field they are passionate or curious about. Others are seasoned professionals ready for a career change or new skills. But, in addition to the personal and professional benefits, they are united by a commitment to improving their local and global communities. 

Watching President Obama’s speech, I was reminded just how powerful and critical that drive toward public service is. “Change only happens,” he reminds us, “when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” That change means very different things to different people, but public service is an integral component to effecting action.

From my vantage point at McCormack, I see that “public service” is an excitingly broad term. Some of our students are preparing to or are serving in elected office. Others are committed municipal, state, and federal government employees who see those institutions not as “inevitably corrupt” bureaucracies, but as agents of meaningful progress. But public service expands far beyond that. It is in the applied research that aids the expansion of economic opportunity and equity. It is in the nonprofit and mission-based for-profit sectors that provide social services and advocacy for aging populations and our most vulnerable neighbors. And it is in the daily work our alumni do to mediate conflicts in courts, universities, and conflict zones across the globe.

As President Obama points out, “We can argue about how to best achieve these goals, but we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves.” Our students bring a diverse range of backgrounds and ideas to the table. As faculty and students from our Conflict Resolution programs can tell you, the discourse surrounding this work can be diverse and divergent. As a fierce proponent and beneficiary of public higher education I see the classrooms of McCormack, UMass Boston, and similar institutions as inclusive incubators that encourage the exchange of differing viewpoints in shared service to a larger ideal. Further, our faculty and research centers are a major driver of critical thinking, data-driven policy, and other endeavors that work to expand the “science and reason” Obama championed. The conclusions of policy analysis may be subjective, but the endeavor requires an adherence to facts.

No matter what institution our prospective students end up attending or what they go on to do, it is incredibly heartening to be reminded day after day, admissions cycle after admissions cycle, that there are so many talented, complex, and committed people using their energy and resources to heed the president’s call to “show up, dive in, and stay at it.”

As we say farewell to President Obama, I am thankful to be able to say hello to our new cohorts of change agents.


Justin MaherJustin Maher (PhD, University of Maryland) is the assistant dean for academic programs at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.

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