Charles E. Menifield: Q&A with the new dean of Rutgers SPAA

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Making Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration a Primary Resource for Community and Public Engagement in Newark and Beyond


Charles E. Menifield – respected scholar, award-winning professor, and experienced administrator with substantial experience in the public sector – became dean of the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) at Rutgers University–Newark on Sept. 1, 2017.

Menifield came to Rutgers SPAA from the University of Missouri – Columbia where he was the associate dean for academic programs at the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs since 2013 and professor since 2012. Prior to that, he was at the University of Memphis for nine years where he was a professor and associate professor and served as the director of the public and nonprofit administration program. He has twice been a visiting scholar at the Congressional Budget Office in Washington, D.C., and was an associate professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University and an assistant professor at Murray State University. He holds a PhD in political science (in the fields of American politics and public administration) from the University of Missouri – Columbia. 

As dean, Menifield oversees the School of Public Affairs and Administration, which was established as a school in 2006, but existed as a graduate degree-granting department at the campus since the 1970s. The school serves more than 800 students, many of whom are international, throughout its undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs, and is highly recognized and ranked for its knowledge and competence in public management and administration. In the interview below, Menifield discusses his desire to make Rutgers SPAA a primary resource for students, faculty, alumni, and community members looking to advance engagement between academia and the public, as well as to better serve the school’s students and alumni.

What attracted you to Rutgers SPAA?

I was most attracted to SPAA because of the faculty and the quality of the students produced. PhD granting programs primarily earn a reputation based on the quality of the faculty (as defined by publications, individual stature in the field, and the PhD students produced) and placement of the PhD students. SPAA is replete with well-seasoned faculty and scholars on the rise. Two of our core faculty are in the National Academy of Public Administration [a congressionally chartered organization established to assist government leaders] and I suspect that we will have three to four more in the next few years. I couldn’t put together a faculty of better quality if I had an unlimited supply of funds. Simply put, they can’t be replaced. Also, the placement of PhD students reflects the strong training that they received from our internationally respected faculty. For example, I was at the University of Missouri – Columbia when we hired Mirae Kim, a former SPAA PhD student, a few years ago. I believe that she had twelve or thirteen articles in very good journals by her third year with many more in progress. Another PhD graduate, RaJade Berry-James, an associate professor at NC State, is a well-established scholar, and there are many others. SPAA has a long history of producing good scholars and has an excellent reputation in the field. I believe [Dean Emeritus] Marc Holzer did an excellent job of branding the program and this attracted some very good students and faculty to the school over the years.

What are your top priorities for your first year? What do you consider your highest priority as dean?

Let me first say that I believe there are some generic priorities that every dean should focus on. For example, fundraising and advancement of faculty and students. However, all institutions should forge ahead with a well-thought-out strategic plan. These plans emanate from stakeholders. Hence, I have spent countless hours talking to the staff, faculty, students, and alumni with the goal of getting input on the strategic plan. This process will be ongoing until the final plan is written and vetted. Although I am in the early stages of collecting data and information, I do believe that some things clearly stand out as priority: Public EngagementStudent Recruitment and Faculty Support, and Development.

If I had to prioritize these items I would place student recruitment as number one. Stated simply, without students we will cease to exist. Therefore, it is important that we put our best foot forward in developing and marketing programs that fit within our mission. We need to constantly evaluate our courses, certificates, degrees, and processes in order to ensure that we are offering and delivering the best programs.

Given the public service component of our mission, I also believe that we need an entity to support our public engagement activities. I would like to have a Division of Public Engagement established by the end of the academic year with a clear vision and organizational plan to facilitate and expand our public engagement activities in every respect as they relate to students, faculty, and the community at large. I want SPAA to be the go-to location for students interested in a major that embraces public engagement at every level, as well as the go-to location for bureaucratic organizations in Newark and the surrounding communities who need professional assistance/partners/collaborators (faculty) and employees (students) who have been theoretically well trained to think through issues and problems, but yet have on-the-ground training through internships, study abroad experiences, and other like experiences. We have quite a few faculty and students who are currently engaged and I would like to expand those opportunities. These expanded opportunities are predicated on a model that not only rewards the behavior, but one that creates the time needed to engage in the behavior.

Last, we need to reconnect and stay connected with our alumni and those who embrace the work that we do. I believe that our alumni are looking for a reason to be involved with the school and its activities. Hence, we will formally engage them in devising the strategic plan and get their ideas on key areas that we should focus our attention and resources.

In summary, the strategic plan will focus on the following: Public Engagement – increase the number of faculty and student engagement and collaborative endeavors and activities with local and campus entities; Student and Faculty Related Ventures – recruit more students and faculty; increase the amount of support, funding, and scholarships for students at every level for activities such as research, internships, and studying abroad; and support activities that could lead to external grant funding and contracts for faculty; Development – revitalize our alumni association and reconnect with our alumni; increase the number of donors as well as the amount of donations from our alumni and those who believe in our vision and mission; and ultimately, I would like to see the school named. If we are able to achieve the latter goal, it will make it much easier to facilitate many of the items in our plan.

Again, this plan is a working document and I will solicit feedback from the entire SPAA family and any who embrace what we represent. This is not my strategic plan, but our strategic plan – I am simply the person who is charged with creating a vision to bring it all together. The future is very bright for SPAA and we are all excited to see the fruits of our labor come to life. If I had to summarize all of the above into a few sentences, I would say the following: my vision is to assist the faculty and staff in making SPAA the world-class leader in preparing well-rounded students for public service at every level; nurturing and growing faculty to become renowned scholars in their fields; and becoming the quintessential academic leader in public engagement.

What do you see as Rutgers SPAA’s biggest challenge within the next five years? Where do you see Rutgers SPAA in five years?

I believe that competition for students around the country and declining revenues from governmental entities will be the biggest challenges for all public universities over the next five years. Therefore, we have to create a plan that aggressively addresses the items I’ve outlined in order to curtail the overall impact of competition and declining revenues. The economic model that we employ at Rutgers also contributes to this issue as we compete on campus for students. Therefore, we have to constantly reexamine our programs and processes in order to maximize our opportunities. Concurrent with this, we have to continue to attract the best faculty and provide them with the best resources in order to be successful.

In five years, we will move up in rankings; be seen as the number one school of public affairs and administration that prepares students for public engagement; have the most engaged alumni among all programs at Rutgers; and be seen by every local government in New Jersey as the best location to not only find quality employees, but also the best location to send their employees for additional training.

Fill in the blank: When my time as dean is over, I will have considered my deanship successful if _____________.

(In no particular order) I will have considered my deanship successful if we move up in the rankings; the Division of Public Engagement is viewed as a valuable resource to the university and the local governments in New Jersey; our students continue to be placed in highly visible public service organizations and universities; we continue to see an increase in the student population in every modality; more of our faculty are selected for membership in the National Academy of Public Administration; our faculty continues to expand its diversity and inclusion efforts (both in the classroom and the faculty as a unit); the number of active alumni members grows; the number and amount of student scholarships grow; and the school is named. There are too many things that I could include on this list, but I believe that these items capture the crux of my thoughts.

What piece of advice would you offer to someone about to start studies at SPAA?

Data shows that those who complete a college degree earn more than those who don’t attend a college or university. So, I would encourage all of our students to embrace this opportunity to earn a degree or certificate by working diligently to succeed. Every staff and faculty member in SPAA wants you to succeed and stands ready to help you achieve your goals and objectives. We will do our part, but we need you to expand your thinking capacity and be open to different cultures, ideas, alternative learning pedagogies, and ways to do things. Don’t ever forget that we are a family and families support each other through every trial and every celebration.

About Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA)

The School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) at Rutgers University–Newark educates and motivates students to choose careers in public service and administration through its innovative undergraduate and graduate degrees and professional and graduate certificate programs. Rutgers SPAA is highly ranked by U.S. News & World Report and is accredited by NASPAA – the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration, as well as being the first U.S. school to earn full international accreditation from ICAPA – The International Commission on Accreditation of Public Administration Education and Training Programs.