From Maxwell Perspective...

Closing a Five-Year Chapter

As he completes his deanship, James Steinberg reflects on the Maxwell School, its strengths and accomplishments, and his own priorities as a dean and teacher.

By Renée Gearhart Levy

2011-16: The James Steinberg Years
James Steinberg became the dean of the Maxwell School in mid-2011, having recently completed two-and-a-half years as Deputy Secretary of State under Hillary Clinton. This June he is stepping down, completing five years as dean.

In his career, Steinberg has traversed the boundary between theory and practice in policy making. He has served as vice president and director of policy studies at the Brookings Institution, dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and deputy national security adviser to President Clinton. He is also an author, most recently of Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: US-China Relations in the 21st Century (with Michael O’Hanlon).

Jim Steinberg reflecting on his deanship

James Steinberg

Over the last five years, he has worked to build on the School’s strengths and unique interdisciplinary structure to respond to changing times and needs. We sat down with Steinberg near the end of the semester to reflect on his leadership and on the state of the Maxwell School.

Steinberg will remain on the faculty as a University Professor of Social Science, International Affairs, and Law. This fall, he will teach International Actors and Issues, the foundational course for incoming MAIR students.

Q. Taking a broad view, in what ways do you see the Maxwell School as a different place than when you arrived five years ago?

A. We’re adapting to a changing environment for both undergraduate and graduate students. We see very important trends on the undergraduate level — first, a strong interest in interdisciplinary work. An extraordinarily large number of our students are double and triple majors, so we’re building a more deliberate strategy to support those kind of interdisciplinary perspectives. With [MAX Courses Director] Mark Rupert’s leadership, we’ve created an undergraduate committee across all the departments to really think hard about how to facilitate and foster that.

Second is experiential learning. More and more, students want a connection between what’s going on in the classroom and what’s going on in the world, both to enrich their learning experience and to prepare them for jobs. We believe in the liberal arts and a broad-based education, but we also want to make sure that we’re giving students the skills they need to be successful when they leave the University.

On the graduate side, we’ve had to adapt to a very challenging financial environment for our students. We’ve created a number of new graduate scholarship programs, which is critical for getting the best students to come here. We’re very proud of the fact that almost 95 percent of graduates from our two main master’s programs get jobs within a year, but we have to continually revise and adapt our curriculum to make sure that continues. And we’re now stepping into the world of online education. We’ve been having ongoing discussions with 2U and have our first agreement to build out an online executive master’s program in public affairs. [See page 3.] I think that is just a first step of looking at ways to engage a broader community beyond the walls of the University. 

Q. How do you see the Maxwell School as unique from competitor

A. Because we have undergraduates, we have a much more diverse student body here. Second, many public policy programs are at schools that have separate departments of social sciences, so there isn’t the same level of interaction and engagement. That’s what makes us unique. We’re a much more comprehensive community of people interested broadly in the social sciences, and applied social sciences and policy, and that creates opportunities that don’t exist as easily in other institutions.

“Students want a connection between what’s going on in the classroom and what’s going on in the world, both to enrich their learning experience and to prepare them for jobs.”

Jim Steinberg presenting a student with a prize at a graduation ceremony

James Steinberg presides over his final graduate convocation as dean, in May. He’s shown presenting the departmental dissertation prize to history PhD Paul Arras (who happens to be one of the dean’s former teaching assistants).

Q. Let’s talk about the Maxwell School’s unique interdisciplinary structure. Has your understanding of that changed since you arrived?

A. It’s important to always bring those two different perspectives to bear. So we’ve looked for ways to be more proactive about facilitating engagement and exchange. It’s important to provide incentives and encouragement in interdisciplinary work. The Tenth Decade Project is a good example of that. When you provide incentives, people find it’s something they want to do.

Q. Maxwell was founded on the concept of citizenship education, and it’s always been important. But just before your arrival, the School started an additional program: the new major in Citizenship and Civic Engagement (CCE), which graduates its first class this year. How does that major differ from the already existing, underlying role of citizenship within the Maxwell undergraduate education?

A. What we tried to do with CCE is take a conscious and deliberate approach to integrating the course of study with experiential learning, as a window into some of the broader issues they are studying. Students are studying questions of citizenship and society, they’re designing projects, they’re engaging in them and evaluating them, drawing on the lessons that they’ve learned in the classroom. It’s a more holistic and integrated approach, and it’s intense. Part of the reason the program is small is because faculty members really have to have a lot of engagement with the students, but we think the value of CCE as a full learning experience is really exciting. 

“It’s important to provide incentives and encouragement in interdisciplinary work. . . . When you provide incentives, people find it’s something they want to do.”

Q. A hallmark of your deanship has been bolstering the Maxwell School presence in Washington, including new facilities within the CSIS headquarters. Has that investment made an impact?

A. It’s been enormously important. We’ve created an experience that’s meaningful and exciting for students, and their testimonials are the biggest demonstration of that. They’re having a rich set of experiences in the classroom with teachers who come from the world of practice, which wouldn’t happen if we weren’t in Washington.

Particularly striking are the synergies that develop because we’re at CSIS. For example, one student who’s interested in issues related to Korea is now working with Victor Cha, who is the Korea chair at CSIS and a professor at Georgetown, and who was a senior director in the [George W.] Bush White House. This is a chance for that student to work with someone who is both a well-respected academic and a practitioner right there on the ground at CSIS.

Because of the proximity to Think Tank Row, students are able to go to conferences, presentations, and lectures; and not only sit and listen, but also meet other students and build their network. Every dimension — their coursework, their internships, their co-curricular activities — allows them to get a sense of the world they’re going to inhabit once they get their degrees. The focus has been on people in international relations, but I think the next step will be to bring in students who have other policy-related interests.

Q. You put a lot of emphasis on the observance of Maxwell’s 90th anniversary, part of which was the launching of the Tenth Decade Project. How did that priority develop?

A. One of the first things I received when I became dean was a volume of Maxwell School history. I was very conscious coming into this position of an anniversary approaching. Deans are always looking for ways to gain exposure and garner support for their schools, and anniversaries are good ones. As I talked with faculty and staff, it was clear people felt the 90th anniversary was worthy of observance, but they didn’t want it to be just a pat on the back. There needed to be an element of looking forward. It seemed natural to look forward to the 100th anniversary. What does the School need to do to keep ourselves at the forefront of where we’ve been?

The Tenth Decade Project came out of that, and is devised to maintain the School’s excellence and innovative nature around things that are distinctive. We are the only school of citizenship, after all. 

Q. Tenth Decade provides support for faculty-and student-driven projects. What do you hope their impact will be?

A. The specific projects are very important, especially because many of them focus on emerging issues that will be very important for the School to stay on the cutting edge of policy: the environment, sustainability, labor, income equality. It also goes back to my earlier comments about facilitating interdisciplinary work. It’s about building relationships between faculty members so they see the value of collaborating across disciplines, and in some cases, outside of Maxwell and in the wider world. The projects are important but so is the collaboration they may inspire.

Q. You opened the Tanner Lecture by asking Madeleine Albright about the value and challenges of moving between academia and government service in her career. How do you answer that question?

A. One of the strengths of our system of government, which is relatively unique, is the fact that so many senior policy makers go in and out of government, both to the world of practice and the academy. They’re hugely complementary. As a practitioner, you benefit from having periods of time when you can reflect on your own experiences and the challenges you’ve had, and time to reacquaint yourself with fresh and new thinking about issues (which you rarely have the same kind of time to do while you’re in government). As a teacher, you’re able to draw on your experiences to enrich the way you interact with your students and your research. You’re a better practitioner for the time you spend in the academy and a better teacher and researcher for the time you’ve spent in government.

It’s also tough to maintain the level of intensity you need in government, year in and year out. I was in the Clinton administration for seven and a half years, and it’s nice to have a change of pace.

“One of the things that really makes this a special place is how much personal engagement, time, and interest students get from faculty. We hear this all the time from students and alumni.”

Q. Secretary Albright was the most recent in a roster of esteemed speakers brought to campus during your tenure. Did you invite them personally?

A. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of individuals who are prominent public figures, and I’ve been reasonably unashamed about asking my former colleagues and friends to join us here. These are people I admire and respect a lot and it’s a treat for me to have them, but the real reward is seeing their impact on students.

The chance to be in a large auditorium with someone like Madeleine Albright is a great experience for students, but we’ve been very fortunate that many of our guests have been willing to get into the classroom, too. Hillary Clinton spoke to my American Foreign Policy class. Secretary Albright met with two classes. Bill Bradley met with students. We make a real effort to engage not just at the macro level but also with smaller groups. Lynn Tanner, who sponsored the Tanner Lecture series, made it clear he hoped that would happen and we’ve been able to fulfill that.

Q. There’s been a tremendous number of faculty hires during your tenure — 43 faculty appointments — and you’ve been involved actively in the hiring process. How do you view a dean’s contribution to the shape and quality of the faculty?

A. Especially at a place like Maxwell, the dean has a very unique perspective. We hire into our departments and each department will have criteria on excellence within the discipline and on the teaching and research needs of the department. But there are goals and objectives that transcend those of the individual departments and the dean provides that school-wide perspective.

The Maxwell School is very interested in interdisciplinary work and in how we apply the knowledge we generate to the real world. What I’ve tried to bring to this is to look at people who contribute not only to their department and their discipline but to the broader objectives here. When we can find a candidate who meets those goals, we have the ideal candidate. The good news is that we’ve been fortunate. Maxwell is a place that talented people, both senior and junior, want to come to and we’ve been able to hire some world-class, very senior people and some amazing, young, up-and-coming faculty members. That’s exciting.

Q. You’ve made teaching a priority for yourself while you’ve been dean. Why was that important to you?

A. I’ve always believed that teaching is at the core of what the academic enterprise is about. As a dean, you don’t want to get disconnected from that. If you’re not engaging in the same kinds of activities that your faculty are, you don’t have the same sensitivity to the challenges that they’re facing. It’s also true that you don’t get to know the students. If you have a group of students in the classroom and you’re meeting with them once or twice a week, you really get to know them and are able to stay in touch with their perspective and attitudes. That’s why I teach both graduate and undergraduate students, so I can get the feel for both. Over the five years here I’ve had hundreds of students. It’s made me feel engaged in the core business of what we’re doing here and that I wasn’t just an administrator.

Q. Do you see any particular challenges for the incoming dean?

A. The incoming dean will have the good fortune to inherit a really remarkable, special school. The challenge is always to be faithful to what has made the School so successful and so unique, while recognizing that the circumstances and context are constantly evolving. If you want to maintain that, it’s not a question of just repeating what’s been done before but understanding the essence of what works and then applying and adapting it to a changing environment.

Q. What have we not covered that you would like to share about the School from your unique vantage point?

A. The one thing we haven’t talked about is the incredible dedication of the faculty and staff to our students. I’ve been a member of a number of academic communities and one of the things that really makes this a special place is how much personal engagement, time, and interest students get from faculty. We hear this all the time from students and alumni.

The research is important, and I want us to be at the top of innovative research, but we have to be doing our core job, which is inspiring and engaging students. This faculty is so committed to that, which is what makes our alumni so devoted to Maxwell. I really admire that.

This article appeared in the spring 2016 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2016 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail