University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service Serving Students and Central Arkansas at Large

March 26 - April 1, 2018

By Becca Bona


“Public Service, in my opinion, is leadership through civic engagement,” says University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service Dean, James “Skip” Rutherford. “It is not only learning ‘what to do’ or ‘where to do’, but ‘how to do’ and being able to teach others ‘how to do.’”


Breaking down the curriculum


Founded in 2004, the Clinton School of Public Service was the first in the nation to offer a Master’s degree in the field. Rutherford has been involved for more than a decade, after he took the reigns from founding dean, former US Senator David Pryor, in 2006.


“What separates the Clinton School from the more traditional graduate programs in public administration, public affairs, or even public relations, is that a significant portion of our academic curriculum is direct field service work,” he explains.  


Over the course of two years, students take part in three required field service components – a group project in the first year, an international travel project in the summer between the first and second year, and finally, as a part of capstone during the final year.


Setting up the group project for students is a bit like a moving puzzle. Rutherford says that a large part of the process is taken on by the Clinton School Office of Community Engagement, which works with partners to find appropriate outlets for students.


The first year project is the only field service component that students don’t choose outright. Before coming to class, they receive a list of descriptions, which are vague in nature, and are instructed to rank them matching their interests.


“It is a very thoughtful collaborative process internally because you’re working with a lot of different people […]normally, students get one of their top four choices, so it works out,” Rutherford explains.


The summer of international study and the capstone, however, offer more flexibility. “We have a lot of these projects that are self-designed,” he continues.


Over the years, the school has added concurrent programs. Students can get a law degree from the William H. Bowen School of Law while attending the Clinton School, a Master’s in Public Health from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Fay W. Boozman School of Public Health, or an MBA from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Sam M. Walton College of Business.  


Along that vein, a new, completely online Executive Master of Public Service was rolled out this past year.


Inside the program: A student’s perspective


Understanding the program is easier when talking to students who have experienced it firsthand. Colorado native Brandon Treviño is a second year student who is working on concurrently earning his Juris Doctor from Bowen. Paxton Richardson is a second year student from Washington with a background in sociology, and an interest in mental health. The two have widely difference interests and experiences, but they both have managed to find their home in the program.  


Richardson was thinking about taking a year off before enrolling in a graduate program, but is glad she landed at the Clinton School.


“I think the three opportunities for field work here really drew me to this school […] I get to practice what I’m learning and start to make small impacts while learning how to do that on a broader scale,” she says.


She points to her experience with her first year group project – working with the Arkansas Electric Cooperative to interview members on electrifying rural Arkansas.


“We were doing a case study,” she says, “and, from there we used those pockets that we found throughout everyone’s stories and created video vignettes for [the Cooperative] to show to their members.”


At the other end of the spectrum, Treviño and his group worked with the City of Conway to identify reasons for, and present potential solutions to, the high level of outstanding misdemeanor warrants. And while he laughingly says, “That’s a huge project to tackle,” he and his group were able to make some suggestions that the City was able to act on – including implementing an online database for taking care of warrants and court dates – the first of its kind in the state.


In terms of travel, Richardson made her way to the Dominican Republic to work with The DREAM project, a US-based nonprofit that focuses on the emotional and educational wellbeing of children in the Dominican Republic. She was able to create a curriculum of workshop classes based on the needs of scholarship university students, which DREAM facilitated.


“I developed workshops around financial literacy […] around questions about how you apply for loans, how you buy a house. I was luckily able to find a local bank that had a ton of resources that they could pull from,” she says.


Her summer travels are tied to her capstone, in which she plans on further exploring the data she collected. “I’m identifying the barriers to student success in this specific area in the Dominican Republic,” she explains. “I care about access to education […]and I’m really interested in education being a form of international development and investing in that.”


Richardson will likely continue her work along that vein when she enters a PhD program after her studies at the Clinton School.


During his summer travels, Treviño landed in Peru to implement a survey for Awamaki, a fair trade group working to empower Peruvian women who weave traditional clothing.


“This is a survey to see how much their lives have been impacted by working with Awamaki. […] It was really cool because a lot of that data that we found showed that these women’s lives were impacted in positive ways.”


Alternatively, his capstone is focused on identifying why there is an achievement gap for Little Rock’s Latino students. “I just want there to be access. I want those students who want to go to college, to be able to. There are a lot of factors in the Latino community that are unique barriers, like documentation,” he says. “I’ve been working with a nonprofit doing a needs-assessment, best practices on how to help Latino students go to college, and I’m also creating workshops on the entire college-going process.”


He hopes to one day make as big of a difference back home in his Colorado community.


Outreach: The Center on Community Philanthropy


Most of former President William Clinton’s post-presidential work has been in philanthropy, albeit a traditional form. Housed within the Clinton School of Public Service, the Clinton Center on Community Philanthropy takes that conventional dynamic and flips it upside down.


Dr. Charlotte Williams has been involved with the school for over a decade, both as a faculty member and as the executive director of the Center.


“Dean Rutherford was one of the early architects of the Center,” she says, “The way they structured the Center to be a core component of the school, that it would be lead by a tenured faculty member and would integrate work into the curriculum, as well as the infrastructure of the school overall, was brilliant.”


The Center itself is very unique, as Williams continues, “There’s actually not another center in academia or in philanthropy that’s like ours.” A large portion of the Center involves applied learning of community philanthropy.


Williams defines this method as, “The giving of time, talent, and treasure, that when invested locally, is characteristic of positive change and community development. It’s a way of helping people to understand the power of what they’re already giving – personally, privately, publicly.”


The Center includes a scholarship and research arm, which brings in a scholar-in-residence. They stay for a week, writing and researching about community philanthropy through the context of a general topic.


“For instance, we published ten scholars who came in over a three year period in 2006 to 2009. They all wrote on the topic of community philanthropy strategies for impacting vulnerable populations,” says Williams.


The Center also brings in a visiting philanthropy faculty member who, as a researcher-in-resident, stays for the entire semester.


“Right now we have visiting scholar from the University of Puerto Rico – Dr. Carlos Rodríguez-Díaz. He and I are working on a study looking at the impact of the outcome from the hurricane in Puerto Rico. We’ll be studying that in the context of understanding how the implications apply to Afro-Latino Hispanic communities globally.”


Beyond scholarship and research, there is also the leadership and development arm, which is the Center’s work within the community. “To me, that’s the meat and potatoes of the Center,” says Williams. With that in mind, it’s important that the Center focuses on assembly.


“Being able to bring people together to have a dialogue is huge and powerful,” says Williams. Because the Center is not a foundation, it is able to tap far and wide into a myriad of networks of people from all walks of life, ultimately bringing them together in ways they might not be able to, organically.


“We’re doing this work because it’s important to have a dialogue around issues,” says Williams. “That’s why we believe that community philanthropy can be impactful, because we can introduce the dialogue and terminology to help people have the right connections. […] When you look at data and impact it’s hard to disagree.”


Students are integrated in all components of the Center, from co-authoring papers and delving into research to engaging in community activities.


“Like Dean Rutherford says, that’s really the gift that keeps on giving, because our students have stayed in contact with these scholars as they graduated, and it has created opportunities and careers for them. They wouldn’t have that experience anywhere else in community planning.”  




“We bring in about 100 programs a school year – free and open to the public,” says Rutherford. “The most important aspect is that they’re free and open to the public – it’s just another way we practice public service.” Pictured above are the Little Rock Nine, taking part in the 60th anniversary of Little Rock’s Central High School’s Integration last year. (Photos courtesy of the Clinton School of Public Service)