Through numerous endeavors, Stanford has provided a haven for students’ pursuit of public service. The University encourages student groups to serve the community and houses the Haas Center for Public Service, an administrative center through which students can join or create student groups, obtain fellowships and search for public service-related careers. In fact, the Haas Center recently announced that Stanford graduates are increasingly interested in pursuing public service opportunities.
The definition of public service, as stated by Jim Murray, program director for postgraduate public service at the Haas Center, is broader than the ideas traditionally associated with community service. While the latter often bring to mind volunteering in soup kitchens, cleaning up public recreation areas or constructing homes, a public service career can, according to Murray, be “working for a nonprofit organization, a philanthropic foundation, a government entity at the local, national or international level.” In addition, a public service-related career can include “working for a for-profit organization that has a public service aspect.”
At a time when the financial sector is under attack for its pursuit of ostensibly self-serving, greedy goals, the notion of engaging in public service certainly sounds nobler. The Stop the Brain Drain movement, begun in part by Stanford students, aims to promote public service and encourages young people to forego careers in the financial services industry.
This dichotomy has gained traction as the Occupy movements unfold. On one side is Wall Street, a category that has grown to encompass the finance, business and consulting industries, full of capitalists who make up the “1 percent” of American society. What is on the other side? As far as career framing goes, the other side seems to be the amorphous category that is public service.
It is valuable to recall that public service is a broader category than one may think. And by stamping the broad label of public service onto a wide swathe of pursuits, we may be doing more harm than good. There is simply too much heterogeneity within fields and industries to declare that one type of career may be public service while another may not.
First let us consider the notion that careers in government must be inherently categorized as aspects of public service. This is certainly true for many a campaigner, a grassroots volunteer or a city mayor. Perhaps it is true as well for a state senator, a research analyst or the President of the United States. But there are undoubtedly dishonest, self-serving politicians as well, those who rely heavily on various donations and sources of influence to place the good of a narrow special interest group over a greater good. As countless editorials now maintain, including a recent op-ed by Stanford lecturer David Crane, the crony capitalism of politicians in Washington, Sacramento and other political capitals are just as much to blame as those working in the decidedly non-public service sector.
Might public service then have a place in for-profit organizations? Yes, although the definition of public service as including work in for-profit organizations that has a public service aspect is in and of itself a tautology. Certainly some careers in for-profit organizations will have a strong public service component, as Jim Murray described when he provided the example of working in corporate social responsibility. It so happens that Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and most financial institutions, currently lambasted to no end, all have divisions that address corporate social responsibility.
The inherent problem with claiming that some careers relate to public service while others do not encompasses the tautological argument in which some careers are deemed public service because they have public service aspects. We do any career a disservice by assuming that it is related to public service by virtue of its general industry or field. Rather, let us emphasize that careers in certain areas may be made to service the public good by the actions of those who fill the positions.