Of the People

Of the People

For many alumni, government careers offer the best opportunity to serve

By Alexis Grant '03 | Photos by Fred Field

"One of the most important and enduring competitive advantages that a country can have today is lean, efficient, and honest civil service," Thomas Friedman asserts in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, his pivotal book explaining how the post-Cold War world works. With newly integrated markets and open borders, he writes, "the quality of your state matters more, not less than in the past."

From human services to wildlife management to foreign service, and in elected or appointed positions, Colby graduates in civil service fill essential roles that make our society function. Some government jobs are high profile, others obscure, many thankless. But for alumni who see working through the system as the best way to make a difference in the world, careers in government service have long held appeal.

The extent of that appeal ebbs and flows and, for a variety of reasons, America is seeing an outgoing tide.

"There has rarely been a time in our history when it's been more difficult to attract good people to public service,— said G. Calvin Mackenzie, Colby's Goldfarb Distinguished Professor of American Government. "Those who do accept the call really are heroic swimmers against a swelling stream of deterrence.—

Public confidence in government has been declining since 1964, according to an ongoing University of Michigan survey. After an upward blip following the 9/11 attacks, the trend angled back downward, Mackenzie said, citing a few real-life reasons that some people avoid the public sector: "Low salaries, long hours, high stress, twenty-four hour news cycles, highly invasive ethics regulations.—

According to William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government L. Sandy Maisel, the Reagan-inspired tradition of Republicans running against the federal government is one more reason it's a wonder that government is able to attract qualified applicants.

Employment data on Colby alumni reflect the trend. The number of career government employees from the 1970s was high. There was a decline in the 1980s, a rebound under Clinton, and another decline of late. But Colbians still gladly and energetically accept the call, in roles ranging from town clerk to assistant secretary of state and as experts at such specialized federal agencies as NASA and the Centers for Disease Control. If these are the "heroic swimmers,— why do they persist?

Colby asked that question of a variety of public servants. Here are portraits of four of them; a gallery of 11 additional Colby grads in public service (see box to left), by Douglas Rooks '76, is at Colby online.
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