Newest Book from Robinson Professor Urges Citizens to Think Institutionally

Posted: July 28, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Man sitting on steps outside Supreme Court building
In his newest book, Robinson Professor Hugh Heclo discusses Americans’ distrust of institutions. At the same time, he stresses the importance of working within those institutions.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

At many universities, the most distinguished professors teach only graduate students. But at Mason, thanks to the vision and generosity of the late Clarence J. Robinson, undergraduates have the opportunity to learn from faculty members recruited to Mason from senior positions at prestigious institutions.

The mission of these educators, the Clarence J. Robinson Professors, is to enrich the academic experiences of undergraduate students while continuing their scholarly pursuits on broad and fundamental intellectual issues.

The first cohort of Robinson Professors arrived after the university started receiving income in 1984 through a historic bequest from Robinson. A leading businessman and civic leader in Northern Virginia, Robinson was prominent among a group of Northern Virginia citizens who sought to establish an institution of higher education in the region.

This is the 10th in a series of profiles of the Robinson Professors. Paul D’Andrea, Shaul Bakhash, Roger Wilkins (retired), Harold Morowitz, James Trefil, Carma Hinton, John Paden, Robert Hazen and Spencer Crew were previously profiled.

Hugh Heclo

By James Greif

Hugh Heclo
Hugh Heclo
Creative Services photo

Making a career of studying institutional distrust and the political partisanship surrounding public policy might turn one into a cynic. But Robinson Professor of Public Affairs Hugh Heclo has remained positive and optimistic despite examining these subjects over his long career.

While corporate and political scandals and abuse of trust wear on the country’s citizens, Heclo’s latest academic work provides a thoughtful analysis of how Americans can better serve the organizations and institutions they depend upon and participate in, setting a positive example for leaders and citizens alike.

His book, “On Thinking Institutionally” (Paradigm, 2008) discusses the stalemate between a society that distrusts institutions and the need to work within those very institutions.

“[We] have grown more suspicious of almost all our society’s major institutions. That includes business, unions, public schools, the legal and medical professions, religious institutions, journalism and nonprofit organizations,” he says.

Using sports as an example, Heclo playfully opens his new book by describing the behavior of fictitious athletes named Berry and Cal. Where Berry is interested in breaking records and self-promotion, Cal is business-like and professional in his workman-like approach to the game.

The example sets out to show that playing by the rules is respecting the game. However, thinking institutionally requires a deeper “respect in depth” than just playing by the rules.

“To love the institution – whether it is your company, politics or sports – and never dream of doing harm to it because it has been so good to you, is thinking institutionally,” Heclo explains.

Leaders of Enron, Bear Stearns and the mortgage industry engaged in groupthink and did not behave respectfully toward their institutions, Heclo says. Referring to the demise of these companies, he adds, “It’s not just institutional failure, it’s people failing institutions.”

From Harvard to Mason

Heclo first became interested in politics when he moved from Ohio to Arlington, Va., in the late 1950s. He pursued a bachelor’s degree at the George Washington University and attended Yale for his PhD. After living in London and teaching at Essex University in England, he joined the Harvard University faculty.

Over his career he has written several award-winning books and has been affiliated with the Brookings Institution, Ford Foundation, Urban Institute and even the White House.

Heclo came to Mason in 1985, a year after the Robinson Professor program was established. He was drawn to the program because of its commitment to undergraduate research.

“Harvard is a great school, and they have great professors there, but they didn’t get a lot of recognition for dedicating senior personnel to undergraduate education.”

Heclo says he enjoys the structure of the Robinson Professors program and the support from administration to have the freedom to teach and collaborate in the way the professors believe most benefits the students.

“I hadn’t counted on how valuable having senior professors with a wide variety of disciplines with the same commitment to undergraduate teaching is to the program. Scientists, historians, artists — people that I would not have had interactions with if it were not for this program,” Heclo says. “We could really experiment and try things not defined by our specialties.”

He returned to Harvard in 2006 as a guest lecturer to speak about the influence of Christianity in the American political process. A year later, he published the acclaimed book, “Christianity and American Democracy” (Harvard University Press, 2007), based on that lecture. He cites the lecture and book as examples of the scholarly freedom that Robinson Professors are given to pursue interests outside conventional disciplinary boundaries.

However, Heclo’s best experiences during his career at Mason stem from his interactions with students.

“This is a gritty, hardworking group of people. The diversity of the students here is wonderful,” Heclo says. “The best undergraduates at George Mason could measure up to the best undergraduate students at Harvard. I tell my students that, but I’m not sure they believe me.”

To Heclo, the ultimate satisfaction of teaching is “when you see a student who starts out as lackadaisical and you are able to reach them and make them understand what it is like to pursue intellectual scholarship.”

A Foundational Scholar

Heclo coined the phrase “issue network,” a term to describe the coalition of various individuals and interest groups that come together to promote a public policy issue. While at Harvard in 1978, he published a paper outlining this theory, and it has been elaborated on by scholars over the last 30 years. A Google search for the term brings up more than 83,000 results, testimony to how influential the theory is.

He came up with the term while analyzing the Nixon Administration’s welfare reform policy. Heclo found that the people who were knowledgeable about welfare issues and helped to shape public policy were not always in official positions.

“It wasn’t every congressperson or every welfare agency, but key individuals in positions of influence who were moving things along,” Heclo says. “Those who were involved in the issue networks earned their way by being knowledgeable, not just passionate.”

Heclo believes that issue networks have become more complex over the years as more players and special interests have entered the political forum and the Internet emerged as a form of communicating and disseminating information.

“In the ’60s you could get all of the knowledgeable parties on a certain issue in the same room fairly easily,” Heclo says. “Today, that would be quite difficult.”

Heclo’s work is considered quite influential in public administration and public policy circles. His first book, “A Government of Strangers,” is still widely used in political science and public policy classes at colleges around the country, although it was written more than 30 years ago. The book describes the relationship between inexperienced but powerful political appointees and career government employees within government agencies.

In 2002, Heclo was honored by the American Political Science Association with its John Gaus Award for lifetime exemplary scholarship in political science and public administration.

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