Bill Duncombe’s Notes

Though he is gone, a respected and much-loved public administration professor lives on in a published compilation of his legendary lecture notes.

By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

bill-duncombe-with-student
The late Bill Duncombe with a student in 2001.

Back in 1999 when MPA student Ben Clark walked into his first class, a daily three-hour seminar and afternoon study session on public budgeting, he found the topic and schedule a bit intimidating. But his professor, Bill Duncombe, quickly made him feel welcomed and ready to tackle the material.

“His warm yet authoritative demeanor really made being in his class easy,” recalls Clark, now a professor in the University of Oregon’s School of Planning, Public Policy, and Management. “Of course a day-long budgeting seminar isn’t always easy, but he was able to keep us entertained and engaged in this intensive course in a way that I’ve never been able to master as a teacher of the same subject.”

"[Duncombe’s] notes were more practical and applied than many of the standard texts at the time.
Ben Clark ’00 MPA

A Maxwell graduate himself (’87 MPA and ’89 PhD), Duncombe was a beloved professor of public administration at the School from 1991 until he passed away in 2013, forging deep bonds among faculty and students alike. As a teacher, Duncombe transformed the MPA program’s signature course in public budgeting. Training more than a thousand MPA students over the years, Duncombe laid the foundations not just for an understanding of public finance but for many careers in the field.

Duncombe’s influence through the budgeting course stretched well beyond the classroom, thanks to the detailed lecture notes that he freely shared with students and alumni — including Ben Clark when he had just taken his first faculty position. “His class notes were supremely helpful to me and my students as a guide toward better budgeting practices,” says Clark. “The notes were more practical and applied than many of the standard texts at the time.”

Bill Duncombe’s published notes are available at Amazon.com.

Now Duncombe’s notes — circulated in binders and course packs over the years — are available to a wider audience through a book published by World Scientific, Lecture Notes in Public Budgeting and Financial Management. The book includes a foreword by former Maxwell professor Jeffrey Straussman (now at the University of Albany), who was Duncombe’s teacher for public budgeting and eventually his faculty colleague. Straussman writes that when he taught Duncombe, student brought as much to the table as professor: “This was when my education in budgeting, public finance, and financial management began — and I had already taught the course for several years.”

At Maxwell, the project of publishing Duncombe’s notes has been spearheaded by Robert Bifulco, chair of Public Administration and International Affairs, who has a deep history with Duncombe. As an MPA student himself in the early ’90s, Bifulco took the public budgeting course from Duncombe. When Bifulco went on for a PhD, Duncombe became his mentor, and they eventually taught budgeting together. The connection even extended to the next generation: Bifulco had Duncombe’s son as an MPA student in the course. Today, Bifulco uses Duncombe’s notes as a primary text in the budgeting course he teaches.

One of Duncombe’s major contributions to the field, according to Bifulco, was placing a pragmatic emphasis on tools and methods. “In traditional public administration programs that had grown out of political science, public budgeting was viewed as a kind of political science topic,” he says. “Bill was much more focused on actually doing the job of a budget analyst or a budget director.”

For all of their utility as a reference and a teaching resource, Duncombe’s lecture notes are clearly also meaningful on a personal level to the many in the Maxwell community whose lives he touched.

“He was just a very kind human being, and he was always willing to talk to former students when they reached out to him,” says Clinton McCarthy ’00 MPA, who has worked for 15 years in public finance in Washington state. He keeps a copy of the new book in his office and appreciates the reminiscences about his former professor in the foreword.

“Having a bound version to keep forever made it exciting for me,” says McCarthy. “A very special thing for a very special professor.”

This article appeared in the winter 2019 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.