The Diplomat: Syracuse University Magazine
By Carol Boll
In July, James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, left his post to become the ninth dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The move marks a return to academia for Steinberg, who served three years as dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas before his appointment to the U.S. Department of State. In addition to serving as dean of Maxwell, he holds the title of University Professor of Social Science, International Affairs, and Law. His wife, Sherburne Abbott, also served in the Obama administration as associate director for environment of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President. She is now SU’s vice president for sustainability initiatives and University Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy.
An expert in public affairs and foreign policy, Steinberg has moved seamlessly among positions in public service, academia, and think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, where he served as vice president and director of foreign policy studies from 2001 to 2005. While studying law at Yale, he took a year off and worked in the Carter administration’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1977. In his second stint at the White House, Steinberg served as deputy national security advisor to President Clinton from 1996 to 2000. He sat down with us recently to talk about his career, public service, and his goals as dean of the Maxwell School.
You were part of a historic administration in Washington, D.C. What prompted you to return to academia?
I told the president and Secretary of State Clinton from the beginning that I planned to serve for about two years. It’s been a great honor and privilege to serve, and this is the third administration I’ve worked in. But I feel a special responsibility to—and special pleasure in—raising our kids [they have two young daughters], and that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Given the level of polarization—leading to what some call “gridlock”—in national affairs, is it particularly difficult today to recruit young people into public service?
No, not if “public service” is understood broadly; yes, if “public service” is understood as government. From my experience at the University of Texas and in dealing with young people coming into public service, I believe this generation is as public service-minded as any I can recall. We see this in the numbers of young people in Teach for America, the Peace Corps, and all kinds of activism and community involvement. So I think there’s a strong motivation to public service, but there also is a certain amount of skepticism about government, so people are looking for other avenues to get involved. We have to think about how to make careers in government more rewarding—and rewarded—for young people; and we also have to help them better understand the opportunities through our graduate and undergraduate programs.