Smith Reflects on the Reinforcing Missions of the School of Government and UNC MPA

Dean Mike Smith stands in the Knapp Library, flanked on either side by bookshelves.

You can be forgiven if it’s difficult to imagine a School of Government without Mike Smith at the helm. Smith has been a member of the School’s faculty since 1978 and has led the unit for 30 years. But change is our only constant, and in early 2022, Smith announced his intention to step down as dean of the School at the end of the calendar year.

Smith will leave a long and powerful legacy at the School as he steps down from the deanship. A significant slice will be dedicated to UNC MPA, the program Smith helped bring to the School (with the support of many, including a group of intrepid alumni).

In 1997, Smith was only five years into his tenure as then-director of the Institute of Government when the unit accepted a new opportunity: take over administration of the MPA program from the Department of Political Science. What now seems to be a natural fit wasn’t a seamless transition. Smith recognized there would be inherent tensions and questions in the process that would need to be resolved for the move to be successful.

“We had never been responsible for a traditional academic program,” Smith said. “One of the biggest challenges was deciding how to structure the work so we could honor the mission of teaching MPA students, honor the School’s mission of working with public officials, and somehow meld that together in a way that made sense. We wanted to find a way for two missions to reinforce one another while retaining what makes the work of the School distinctive and meaningful.”

Smith and other stakeholders quickly realized they needed look no further than to UNC MPA alumni for a model of how the work of the program and the School were complementary. Many prominent local government leaders throughout North Carolina were MPA alumni and active clients of the School.

“Our alumni were instrumental in making that move happen, supporting it, and communicating it to the UNC administration,” Smith recalled. “They were working with us in so many other ways already and they saw the move as a perfect fit. Their enthusiastic support was important throughout that process.”

After the program relocated to the School, the core work began and continues to present day. From day one, Smith said the School wasn’t interested in merely taking over the program—it had to maintain a commitment to making it better. Honoring and weaving together the mission of the program with that of the School requires care and effort from Smith and the MPA program directors he has appointed. One of the most unique features of the program is that faculty teaching graduate students also work alongside and educate North Carolina public officials.

This instruction model is no accident— the School and the program specifically recruit faculty who are prepared to educate both groups. It is a powerful example of the program’s connection with engaged scholarship. This model creates practical, usable knowledge and fosters exceptional connections between faculty, students, and practitioners. It is work that Smith believes sets the program apart.

“No one else in the country does the work we do in the way we do it,” Smith said. “Our work is based on in-depth relationships, partnerships, and knowledge about government and about North Carolina. In turn, our MPA faculty are experts in their disciplines, and they know what’s going on in the real world. They connect those two perspectives in the classroom, in their research, and in their interactions with students.”

School faculty member and UNC MPA Director Willow Jacobson agrees that the School and the program have reinforced each other's missions.

“Mike’s commitment to the mission and vision of the School in serving to advance good government has, in turn, facilitated our ability to build and strengthen the bridge of theory to practice. It has reinforced time and again what it means when that synergy works at its very best.”

That synergy doesn’t only happen in the classroom. The education and relationships that begin in the MPA classroom at UNC are carried out across the state and the nation. In many cases, public officials who started as MPA students become clients of the School, generating endless real-world application for faculty scholarship. This is also put into action by online students, many of whom hold full-time jobs and apply knowledge gained in MPA courses in real time.

“I love the fact that we can support students as they’re preparing for their public service leadership careers and throughout their leadership journeys,” Smith said. “To see that continuity and support and that connection is fantastic.”

The School is a one-of-a-kind institution and the MPA program is part of what sets it apart—on the UNC campus, in the state, and nationwide. As the School begins its first search for new leadership in 30 years, understanding this unique and meaningful relationship will be an important duty for the next dean. It’s part of Smith’s legacy and one of which he remains most proud.

“During my time here, I haven’t done anything by myself. It’s a total school effort,” Smith said. “But one of the things I’m happy about and proud of is that I had some involvement in bringing the MPA program here. I believe it’s stronger and better than it’s ever been because it’s part of the School of Government.”

Smith's legacy is part of the School's larger commitment to the state that has existed for more than 90 years. To honor and uphold it is to recognize the long history of trust and partnership that has existed between the institution and the officials it serves.

“When I joined the School's faculty, I felt that I appreciated what it meant to be in a position to serve public administrators as well as students,” Jacobson recalls. "What I didn’t conceptualize was the tremendous trust and respect that local officials have for School faculty and our ability to have immediate credibility and impact. That feeling is pretty unique. I knew what a gift I’d been given and what a serious endeavor we had."