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Doctorate Provides New Purpose for SPAA Alumnus Jonathan Justice ('03)

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Several years after graduating from college with his bachelor’s degree, Jonathan Justice (PhD’03) carved his way into the public sector by writing letters and making cold calls that led to a job as a business improvement district coordinator for a nonprofit, Flatbush Development Corporation.

In his role, Justice implemented neighborhood commercial revitalization projects and assisted the merchants’ association with marketing and planning initiatives. It was a stretch for a graduate who majored in ancient Greek, but Justice enjoyed the work and became attracted to public administration as a field, particularly as he expanded upon that work by taking a new position as a senior project officer for the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation.  

“At the time, I didn’t have the understanding of public administration that I do now, but the idea of doing public service in cities and making cities better for the people who live there was in my head,” Justice said.

His realization prompted him to pursue an MPA, which reawakened his “inner nerd” as he says. His graduate studies reminded him of his love of learning and planted the seeds of one day earning a PhD.

The impulse to continue his education was set aside for a few years until Justice found himself uninspired by a position at the New York City School Construction Authority and decided that he needed a change in his life.

“Normal men have midlife crises and they get motorcycles or they leave their wives, or do something like that – I got a PhD,” he joked.

Deciding where to pursue his doctorate was fairly easy for Justice who knew about SPAA’s reputation through the program’s founding dean Marc Holzer and was encouraged by his wife to attend Rutgers because of her fondness for the institution.

Despite his eagerness to earn another degree, Justice was initially intimidated when he began the program and feared that he wouldn’t grasp the material.

“[My classmate] was talking and I had no idea what he was talking about,” Justice said. “I thought ‘oh my God, I quit a perfectly good job! I’m going to flunk out before midterm exams. I can’t do this. I’ve ruined my life!' ” Justice recalls, chuckling. “But by the end of the semester I knew what he was talking about.”

Justice said that he loved his classes and furthered his previous interests in finance and public budgeting through his coursework and research. He spent his years in the program as an Excellence Fellow, Dissertation Fellow, and teaching assistant.

“I can’t think of one class I didn’t like,” Justice said.

After earning his PhD in 2003, Justice joined academia and was able to share his love of scholarship by teaching at the University of Delaware where he has worked for the last 15 years, teaching courses such as “Financial Management” and “Local Economic Development Policy and Practice.”

“It’s fun to be in a room full of young people who are curious and actively interested in learning something, and I learn from the students,” he said.

Justice joined the University of Delaware as an assistant professor and was promoted to the positions of associate professor and then full professor. He intends to continue teaching while working on his publications and pursuing justice-based service projects in Delaware.