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March 19, 2002

Dedicated to the study of the U.S. government, with a special emphasis on the presidency, the Miller Center of Public Affairs has long enjoyed the respect and involvement of members of the Executive Branch, especially in efforts to address contemporary policy issues. It has the advantage of a favorable distance from Washington (beyond the Beltway, but not too far removed from the seats of power), and it is scrupulously non-partisan. The Miller Center is as trusted by members of the Carter and Clinton administrations as by those who occupied the Reagan and Bush White Houses. More recently, it has raised its stature in the scholarly community, earning a strong reputation for basic research on political history and American political development.

The Envision discussion (the first devoted to a center rather than a school) revealed that the Miller Center now finds itself at a crossroads. With mature programs, a handsome and newly expanded facility, institutional autonomy, and a solid base of support, it has reached a plateau. The Envision session helped the Miller Center's staff and supporters consider possible futures, taking into account the center's role in the University, how it can contribute to student and faculty work elsewhere on the Grounds, and how it can reach out to new constituencies.

Some participants urged the center to do more to capitalize on its connection with the University. Others sought to understand its relationships with programs that on the surface would seem to have comparable missions, such as the Center for Politics and the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. Still others believe the University should do more to help the Miller Center build stronger connections with the institution.

New Strengths in Scholarship
Thanks in part to improved ties to the departments of history and politics, the Miller Center is now held in high regard for the quality of its scholarship. The presidential tapes project has made the center a magnet for graduate and undergraduate students who relish the opportunity to do groundbreaking work with primary sources. The center also has created what was described as a greenhouse for scholarship in American political history and has established a very distinctive reputation in the field. Headed by Brian Balogh in history and Sidney Milkis in politics, the program now offers what is arguably the premier dissertation fellowship in political history, drawing the best applicants from history, sociology, and political science departments in the country.

Furthermore, top scholars in this field seek opportunities to speak at the Miller Center and to take part in its programs. A series of highly successful colloquia and a recent conference on the Great Society organized by Professor Milkis attest the Miller Center's ability to attract eminent scholars and to make significant contributions to the study of political history. These scholars in turn are now eager to send their best graduate students to the Miller Center. Over three years, the program has supported twenty-one graduate fellows, including six students from U.Va. who compare quite favorably with their peers from other top institutions.

The Miller Center gains tremendous visibility through its national commissions, such as its study of presidents with medical disabilities and the recent study of the presidential election process in the wake of the Florida recount controversy. A special project on homeland defense is now in the offing. The University can point to this work as fulfilling many of its Virginia 2020 goals in public service and outreach.

Stronger relationships with the politics and history departments have helped to increase the Miller Center's involvement in the University. Director Philip Zelikow and other Miller Center scholars teach in the history department, and workshops held on Grounds attract participants ranging from graduate students to senior faculty. More graduate students are seeking the opportunity to work with the center's faculty and to work for the center as student employees.

Students help to organize the Miller Center Forum program, which brings in current and former Washington officials, high-profile journalists, and distinguished scholars. Students also play a key role in the center's oral history program, led by James Young, which is recording the recollections of members of past administrations. Regarded as the custodian of the memories of former presidents, the program has built a network of participating scholars stretching from Harvard to New Mexico State University.

The Forum Program
Faculty attendance in the Forum programs has risen significantly, but the Miller Center has had difficulty attracting undergraduates to the series. In fact, more high school students come to these programs than University students. This is due in part to the center's location. Although its off-the-beaten-path setting is clearly one of its charms for researchers, the Miller Center falls outside students' traditional traffic patterns. The center has offered special shuttles from Central Gounds, but with mixed success. One suggested remedy would be to give students an incentive to attend Forum sessions, such as extra credit for class. Faculty should also do more to promote the center's speakers in their classes. In the end, it was noted that students whose studies are focused on political history find their way to the Miller Center without difficulty.

The Envision participants discussed the possibility of taking the Miller Center's programs on the road, perhaps through the Alumni Association. One idea would be to build a program around a single theme, such as terrorism or homeland security, and take it to cities such as Atlanta, New York, and other locations with large concentrations of U.Va. alumni.

Transformational Ideas
As the discussion turned to ideas that would attract transformational gifts, it was suggested that the Miller Center consider becoming a place where visiting scholars or high-profile practitioners could spend a year to conduct focused research or complete a writing project. Another suggestion was to create a "trinity program" that would bring together visiting scholars, practitioners, and disseminators (i.e., journalists).

Questions were raised about the benefits of these ideas. Would such programs contribute to the teaching mission of the University and/or advance the Miller Center's research efforts? Would funding be better used to support senior scholars on the full-time faculty or the center's fellowship program? The fellowship program cultivates a cadre of the best young scholars whose research contributes to the Miller Center's and the University's academic mission. Given the Miller Center's emphasis on graduate education, more donors should be helping to fund fellowships for the center, it was suggested. A Jefferson Scholar fellowship and an international fellowship for the center were raised as possibilities.

Reconciling the Miller Center's objectives with the University's mission was cited as a necessary step toward fulfilling the center's potential. The center is primarily focused on research and has exceptional ability to create dynamic interaction between the academic and governmental spheres. By linking these activities to the University's primary mission of education and undergraduate life, the Miller Center would achieve greater prominence within and outside the University community. Moreover, it was noted, closer identification with the University would help the Miller Center to attract more donor support.

Much of the discussion focused on collaborative links between the Miller Center and other programs and centers working in the area of public affairs and the democratic process. Tying together the Miller Center, the Sorensen Institute, the Center for Politics, the Institute for Practical Ethics, and the Center for Religion and Democracy, such an initiative would reflect one of the defining elements of the University—its Jeffersonian heritage and its mandate to produce enlightened leaders for a democratic society.

Each of these entities has its own culture and identity and its own base of support. The key to building collaborations among them, it was noted, would be to create a loose confederation in which everyone at the table feels that their interests are not threatened. Another incentive for collaboration is financial support. It was suggested that the University seek a line of federal funding that could be used to bring these programs together.

In the end, the discussion focused on how the Miller Center could help the University do something in the public affairs realm that it is not able to do today. The Miller Center would be willing to be a part of the team if the University can make clear what it wants to accomplish. It was also observed that collaborative relationships among these centers cannot be imposed top-down. They must arise from the centers themselves.

This led to the transformational idea that generated the most discussion and the most positive response: creating an interdisciplinary degree program or school in public policy—something sorely and surprisingly lacking at Mr. Jefferson's university. Many other universities – George Mason, Duke, Harvard, University of Texas – have strong programs dedicated to teaching public affairs. The Miller Center could play a facilitating role in creating such a program, which could draw on disparate but available strengths in such departments as politics, history, sociology, and economics, as well as law, business, medicine, education, and nursing. An essential step would be to give someone the mandate to put this together.

The discussion concluded with the observation that the University has extraordinary assets in the public affairs arena, and the Miller Center stands out among them. If the University takes the lead, the Miller Center is willing to help mobilize these assets and to use them to fulfill a strategic vision.

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Last Modified: Thursday, 16-Feb-2006 08:38:59 EST
Copyright 2003 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

 

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