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Dr. Stephanie Newbold Discusses Her New Book on "The Constitutional School"


Dr. Stephanie Newbold, associate professor and MPA program director at Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) recently published her latest book, The Constitutional School of American Public Administration. The book – edited by Newbold and Dr. David H. Rosenbloom, distinguished professor of public administration at American University – is a collection of public administration essays and articles written by renowned scholars reflecting upon the field’s relationship with and understanding of the Constitution.

We invited Dr. Newbold to discuss her new book, and tell us more about the concept of The Constitutional School. 

Your book focuses on this idea of the 'Constitutional School.'  How do you define the Constitutional School?

I would say that if you could sum up the Constitutional School in a sentence, it would be 'The American Constitution matters.' And it matters not only to who we are as a nation, but how this nation serves its people, and that is intrinsically important to who we are as Americans.

This book is largely an extension of an article I wrote in 2010 for Public Administration Review  (“Toward a Constitutional School for American Public Administration”) and that article appears in the first section of the book. Larry Terry and Michael Spicer first coined the term 'Constitutional School' in the early 1990s. They made the case that U.S. public administration is not grounded in management techniques, the pursuit of efficiency, or quantitative methodologies. Instead, the constitutional and legal traditions of the nation and the rule and philosophy of law provide the framework for understanding the role that public and administrative institutions serve within the confines of American government.

In your book, you address the idea that public administration entities have abandoned their Constitution-based foundations. What do you attribute to this abandonment?

The abandonment occurred as a result of the field trying to make itself more scientific – wanting to focus less on history, law, and democratic traditions and more on quantitative methods to find solutions to complex public problems. One of the ways that the field has changed today is that oftentimes researchers will select a methodology to use before deciding on a research question, instead of allowing a research question to dictate the appropriate methodology. As a result, we are often deprived of the types of comprehensive, intellectual conversations and dialogues concerning the substantive dynamics affecting the democratic governance process – topics that dominated the intellectual history of the field in the early and mid-20th century.

One of the goals of the Constitutional School is create a space within the literature and within the collective conversation of the field to focus more intellectual energy on how topics relating to democratic-constitutionalism affect all dimensions of public administration theory and practice. This is especially important and imperative in trying times. For many, this recent election has challenged the core of the nation’s democratic-constitutional foundations. There is great concern across the United States that the federal government is going to undermine many of the long established policies and programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid that provide essential safety nets to some of our most vulnerable populations: children, immigrants, the elderly, the poor, and the disabled. There is great concern over the direction of the Supreme Court and how the new administration will look to transform the third branch of government. If we have a more comprehensive understanding regarding the fundamental purposes of American government and how the application of the rule of law shapes the role of government in the individual lives of citizens, then our conceptualization of the modern administrative state is vastly improved.

Can you provide some examples of the dangers of straying from using the Constitution as a foundation, in favor of operating like a private sector entity?

In an effort to make government reflect private sector values, we have witnessed numerous infractions to individual and/or constitutional rights. In the War on Terror, there has been the Abu Ghraib scandal and the instances of torture at Guantanamo Bay. On the domestic front, one of the most controversial issues affecting the criminal justice system has been the moral and legal consequences of the privatization of federal and state prisons. We have watched private corporations for decades make billions of dollars through the mass incarceration of Americans – most of whom are in prison for non-violent offenses associated with drug use. One of the reasons there has been so little effort to reform the criminal justice system and address the need for drug and alcohol rehabilitation efforts, until recently under President Obama’s leadership, is because there was so much profit to be made off keeping Americans in prison. This has worked to undermine families and communities, especially minority communities, across the country.  When financial advancement of corporations is valued more than the rights of individual citizens, that creates a serious danger in our democratic order.

Within the Constitutional School of thought, are there any internal conflicts or questions in terms of how to appropriately apply the Constitution when there are differing interpretations?

The Constitutional School does not promote one position over another. For example, we do not take a position on whether a strict interpretation of the Constitution – the way Justice Scalia interpreted the text – versus a more active, living approach – the way Justice Ginsburg views the Constitution – is correct. What we say is that there is room and there is space for all points of view and all dialogues. What we want to create is an intellectual space that allows for more discourse, more analysis, and more understanding of complex issues from a constitutional perspective so that they are valued and appreciated in a more thoughtful, engaging way.

Do you think that the current generation of public administration students understands this school of thought and this movement?

As a professor, one of my goals in every class I teach is to invoke the Constitution, the rule of law, and relevant Supreme Court decisions in an effort to demonstrate how the constitutional heritage of the nation has shaped and continues to shape public administration. But I also recognize that I am probably an exception, which is why one of the goals of the Constitutional School is to make those conversations more prevalent, not only in our academic literature, but also in our classrooms.

In the American experiment, our Framers thought a Constitution was important enough to write down and preserve for posterity. We view these principles as a living testament to who we are as a nation and to the types of values we consider most important. In trying times, we have asked our brave men and women in uniform to serve our nation in war and many have paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect and secure these rights.  Our Constitution is the foundation for that sacred bond. Walking the solemn aisles at Arlington National Ceremony, one cannot help but reflect on the fact that these brave soldiers died for some of the most revered democratic principles known to man: freedom, justice, equality, fairness, and the preservation of a mission to preserve a more just world. It is in this type of reflective spirit that the Constitutional School emerged and it is with great hope that we are able to reinvigorate the field with the type of discourse that advances the democratic-constitutional foundations of the nation.