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Celebrating Policy Studies and its Chief ‘Do Gooder’

October 19, 2022

Colleagues and alumni came together recently to mark the 45th anniversary of the undergraduate program and its founder, Professor Bill Coplin.

Bill Coplin long ago established a routine of taking his introductory policy studies class to the Maxwell School’s first-floor foyer at the end of the semester. There, he has them recite the Oath of the Athenian City-State that’s engraved on the wall behind the iconic statue of first president George Washington.

The oath’s ending promise, to “transmit this city…more beautiful than it was transmitted to us," mirrors the often repeated and simple message Coplin has imparted to his students since he joined the faculty in 1969: “Do good.”

Bill Coplin Policy Studies event
Bill Coplin, professor of policy studies and Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence, is shown at the Orange Central event celebrating the Policy Studies Program he launched in 1977. Seated next to the podium (left to right) are PAIA professors Peter Wilcoxen and Colleen Heflin, and Maxwell School Dean David M. Van Slyke.

Dozens of his former students, who refer to themselves as “do gooders,” joined faculty and staff in the Maxwell School auditorium on a recent afternoon to celebrate Coplin and the 45th anniversary of the Policy Studies Program he founded.

The event was part of Syracuse University’s annual Orange Central alumni weekend festivities. Those who attended paid homage to Coplin while affectionately recounting his well-known and often repeated sayings about making the world a better place. The event included a short video presentation that included a snippet from Coplin’s appearance on “Larry King Live” in 2009. The late talk show host asked him if “do gooders” are motivated by ego. Coplin replied: “Your motives don’t have to be pure, you can enjoy it. …You don’t have to be Mother Theresa.”

The TV show segment also showed Coplin’s car at the time, with a close up of his vanity license plate, “DO GOOD,” that is now framed in his office on the second floor of Eggers Hall.

Coplin, professor of policy studies and Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence, launched the undergraduate policy studies major in 1977 with the goal of incorporating public service into the curriculum. Among the program’s hallmarks: a one-credit course that requires students to complete 30 hours of community service. The experience often embeds in them a drive to give back throughout their lives, says Coplin.

He has long balanced the giving back message with pragmatism. It’s not only the “do good” major, after all, but also the “do well” major. “I ask students, do you want to do good or do well,” he said. “The answer should be both, but unless you’re Mother Theresa, you should do well first.”

The Policy Studies Program is now part of the Public Administration and International Affairs (PAIA) Department with Peter Wilcoxen, professor in PAIA and Ajello Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy, as its new director. Coplin will continue to teach and mentor students in the program.

“He shares the same visions and that’s very fortunate,” Coplin said of Wilcoxen. “I’m very happy.”

After a pause, he added that he appreciates, too, that Wilcoxen let him have the bigger office.

The gentle ribbing was evident at the Orange Central event, where Wilcoxen shared how he first met Coplin 15 years ago, while advising undergraduates majoring in economics. “I quickly realized that many of my econ students also were double majoring in policy studies,” he told the audience. “They were great students: smart, hardworking and engaged. And they were super excited about policy studies. They liked it because it was relentlessly focused on giving them practical, usable, professional skills. And it gave them real world experience using those skills to make a difference in the community.”

Added Wilcoxen, “At the same time, I also learned that the person who ran policy studies was a little unusual. I found that out when students would send me emails that started out ‘Dear Wilcoxen.’ Dear Wilcoxen? Really? The last time someone yelled ‘Hey Wilcoxen’ at me it was a coach in eighth grade PE class. I had to take the students aside and tell them about professional email etiquette.”

Wilcoxen quickly learned that Coplin had directed his own students not to call him professor or doctor Coplin—he hates pretension. He preferred to simply be called “Coplin.”

Those who spoke at the event also included Dean David M. Van Slyke and Colleen Heflin, chair and professor of PAIA. Heflin shared how the addition of policy studies creates synergy with the PAIA faculty and with graduate professional degree programs.

“As we have prepared for this transition over the past nine months, Bill and I have met regularly, and it has been a joy to discover that we share a very similar philosophy of education,” she said.

Heflin said she was introduced to Coplin during her first month at the University. “And I still remember being shocked at Bill’s irreverence for the standard model of undergraduate education but also intrigued at the possible truth—well maybe half-truth—of what he was saying.”

Coplin has been recognized with myriad teaching honors, including the Meredith Professor of Teaching Excellence and the Chancellor’s Citation for Distinguished Service, and, at the 2020 One University Awards, he was celebrated for 50 years of service to the University.

He has published more than 115 books and articles in the fields of international relations, public policy, political risk analysis, social science education, citizenship and community service; and has written extensively on the need to reform both high school and college education to better meet the needs of students who see education as a path to better employment opportunities. He has consulted with more than 40 high schools throughout New York state on curriculum. His course Public Affairs 101: Introduction to the Analysis of Public Policy has been taken by more than 40,000 University students and high school seniors through Syracuse University’s Project Advance Program.

His chief accomplishment, however, is the policy studies major. According to client estimates, his students provide more than $100,000 in research services and more than $60,000 in direct services to the clients of nonprofit agencies each year.

“Bill and the program have received national attention,” said Wilcoxen, “and are adored by thousands of devoted students and alumni.”

What has always been clear, added Wilcoxen, is that Coplin “believes deeply in his students.” 

“He has their backs, and they know it,” he said.

By Jessica Youngman


Policy Studies Student Support Fund

Contributions of all amounts to the Maxwell Dean’s Restricted Fund will help us establish the new Policy Studies Student Support Fund to support undergraduate teaching assistants and other undergraduate opportunities consistent with Bill Coplin’s vision of undergraduate education. Until the new fund is established, all contributions will be held in this account.

Published in the Fall 2022 issue of the Maxwell Perspective

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