Balancing practicality and academia – one guy’s perspective

Clemens_MoPA

Alex Clemens
Founding Partner, Barbary Coast Consulting
Professor in Lobbying, Advocacy, and Governmental Relations

Five years ago, when I was recruited to teach a lobbying class at the (relatively) new Master of Public Affairs (MoPA) program at the University of San Francisco, I think I giggled a little bit. Me? Sure, I’ve been lobbying in San Francisco and the Bay Area for fifteen years, but I have a bachelor’s in Ultimate Frisbee from UC Santa Cruz. I queried Corey Cook, the Director of the Leo McCarthy Center, why he’d made this particular terrible error in judgment. His answer intrigued me.

He wasn’t, he said, trying to stock the program with just academics. Smart academics would be everywhere, to be sure – but he wanted experienced political hands scattered liberally throughout his instructor ranks, as well. “I’m not expecting you to teach them theory – you’re here to show them practice. Tell them what you do. Show them how it’s difficult. Challenge them to understand the choices that you and your clients and the politicians you lobby have to make on a daily basis, and push them to figure out the right answers.”

That was catnip to me. I signed up. And five years later, I’m still enjoying the ride.

Clemens and Cook

In my class, we talk about ethics a lot. (Which shouldn’t be necessary, as ethics are a cornerstone tenet of the University of San Francisco and Jesuit education in general.) But since I’m teaching a lobbying class, educating bright young minds about the ins and outs of a notoriously sketchy industry, I pound the table a lot on this topic. And the shades of gray within these discussions have provoked a set of remarkable conversations. Analyzing, debating, and unpacking the confluence of politics, influence, advocacy, fundraising, relationships, long-term vs. short-term goals … it always gets Socratic and deep and interesting. While it’s not based in academia – but rather in real-life examples I’ve experienced – I see lightbulbs go off over my students’ heads regularly during these debates.

And they’re not the only ones growing lightbulbs. I have been thrilled to learn from my students as much as they’ve taught me. As I drop an ethical quandary into the middle of a class, and force my students (even the quieter ones) to stake out a position and defend it – or suggest that a lobbying target isn’t interested in engaging in a conversation, and challenge them to find an alternate means of successful engagement – I hear things I wouldn’t and haven’t thought of, which inform my work, keep me fresh, and make the educational process a true two-way street.

I’m grateful to the MoPA program for allowing me to participate in the care and feeding of these young leaders, and grateful to these young leaders for challenging me just as much as I do them.

Go Dons!


Read Alia Al-Sharif’s, Director of Barbary Coast Consulting, reflection on MoPA.

Applications for the Master of Public Affairs program close May 1!

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