INTERVIEW BY PROFESSOR JOSEPH MCETTRICK | PHOTOGRAPHY BY KATHLEEN DOOHER
This fall the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service welcomed Alasdair S. Roberts to Suffolk Law as the first holder of the Rappaport Chair in Law and Public Policy. Formerly a professor of public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, Roberts brings to Suffolk Law an extensive background in law and public policy scholarship. A native of Pembroke, Ontario, Canada, he previously taught in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, before moving to Syracuse in 2001. He is also an elected fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and an honorary fellow of the School of Public Policy of University College London.
Roberts is the author of three books, including Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age (Cambridge University Press, 2006) and The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government (New York University Press, 2008). Roberts recently sat down with Professor Joseph McEttrick, a longtime member of the Suffolk Law faculty, to discuss Roberts’ short- and long-term goals for the Rappaport Center, his intersecting research interests, and his second impressions of Boston.
McEttrick: Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you decided to come to Suffolk Law and to the Rappaport Center.
Roberts: Maybe I should begin by confessing that I have a very checkered past. When I first went to university I started off studying political science, but I didn’t really care much for it. I was active in politics—I was a vice-president of a political party in my home province of Ontario—but political science was too abstract for me. So I switched to law, doing a JD at the University of Toronto. But the practice of law wasn’t quite my thing either. Eventually I ended up at the Harvard Kennedy School, studying for a master’s and later a PhD in public policy. This was just the sort of work I wanted to do, and having legal training proved to be a real advantage.
Since then my research has almost always involved problems that are a tangle of law, politics, and bureaucracy. The question is not just what the law should be but what politics will allow, or what can be made to work through the bureaucracy. These are the sorts of questions that the Rappaport Chair, which has a focus on law and public policy, is intended to address. I see this position as a rare opportunity to do work at the intersection of these different fields—to address problems that are central to the improvement of public welfare.
McEttrick: How has the city changed since your time at the Harvard Kennedy School?
Roberts: Boston’s a great city. It’s become more diverse, and the economy has changed since the 1980s. And the Central Artery has gone underground! But in a lot of important ways, the city still has many of its old advantages. For example, it has a great intellectual network with all of its universities. It has a thriving financial center.
It’s the seat of one of the most dynamic state governments in the country. If you’re interested in the dynamics of public policy and networking with other people who share that interest, this is really the place to be. Suffolk Law specifically has the advantage of being physically at the center of things. It’s right in the heart of the city, just a few strides from the legislature, city government, and the business community. And of course, there’s an easy connect to other universities. Suffolk Law’s big advantage, as they say in real estate, is location, location, location.
McEttrick: What have been your early impressions of Suffolk Law and its students and faculty?
Roberts: Suffolk Law has great people. That was obvious on my first visit. It has faculty and staff who are committed to their profession and work as a team. It’s a pleasure to be in that sort of environment. I also like the ethos of the university—that it’s dedicated to ensuring access to higher education. This is also a noble cause that resonates with me—I’m the first person in my family to go to university. So in that regard, I can connect with the mission of Suffolk Law very easily.
McEttrick: How would you describe the overarching mission of the Rappaport Center?
Roberts: We should think of the Rappaport Center as a link that ties together different networks—policymakers, academics, business people, students. We provide a meeting place for different constituencies who want to talk about law and public policy. We take our obvious geographic advantage—location! and make it a metaphor as well; we’re the connector for these different communities.
McEttrick: As the Rappaport Chair, what specific role, both short- and long-term, do you expect to play in the Rappaport Center’s mission?
Roberts: My job is to provide a liaison to the faculty and to help create a mission for the center. I think there are probably two areas that we are going to try to develop. The first is to provide a forum for open conversations about difficult questions of law and public policy. In that area, we’re going to work to bring together faculty, students, policymakers from different levels of government, and people from the private sector to talk through some of the great issues of the day. At the same time, we want to provide support to students who are interested in public service. And that’s going to work out in a variety of different ways. The center administers the fellowship programs for the law school, including the prestigious Rappaport Fellowship Program. The center is also administering the new program of pro bono activities that students are engaged in.
McEttrick: As a legal scholar, what are some of your past and current research interests?
Roberts: I’ve concentrated on two central areas of research. One is government reform—broadly framed, looking at big ideas and big trends that have shaped the way we think about government service, and thinking about how government should be organized and how services should be organized. For example, how do we decide what functions ought to be delivered by the private sector and what functions ought to be delivered by the public sector? And how do we organize bureaucracies so they can operate more efficiently or be held accountable more easily?
The other area I’ve been involved in the past few years is government transparency. My 2006 book, Blacked Out, was sort of a capstone on the work I’ve been doing on that subject for the last seven or eight years. I found that there is both good news and bad news in this area. The good news is that there has been an extraordinary growth in the number of laws around the world that are supposed to guarantee open government. The bad news is that there is still an intense battle over government secrecy going on. There is a battle over privatization of public services, which also happens to involve limitation of public access to information. There is a battle over the growth of defense and intelligence networks—that is, agencies that collaborate more closely and agree with each other about the confidentiality of information they share. And here in the United States, there is the battle over executive privilege, which is closely tied to government secrecy.
Earlier this year I published another book called The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government, which tells the story of the Bush administration’s response to the terror attacks of 9/11. I tried to understand some of the policy missteps over the last few years, and to place those missteps in the bigger context of a government responding to a domestic security crisis in a world that’s very different than the world that faced policymakers 30 years ago, because of globalization and a host of other social and technological changes.
McEttrick: And I understand that you have another book coming out next year.
Roberts: Yes, the book I’m working on now is called Disciplined Democracy: Economic Globalization and Government Reform, and it’s a story about the reforms that governments were told they needed to undertake to succeed in a globalized marketplace. It looks at a range of institutional changes that governments were encouraged to undertake: getting budgets in order, cleaning up regulatory processes, improving the capacity of ports and airports, and so on. If all goes well, this book should come out next year. Although the current financial crisis might require a little rewriting!
McEttrick: How would you say that your research interests relate to the central missions of the Rappaport Center?
Roberts: As I said earlier, my books usually deal with problems that involve a mix of law, politics, and bureaucracy. For example, a large part of Blacked Out is concerned with the global diffusion of laws like the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. But if it turns out that the political climate isn’t very favorable, or if the bureaucracy is hostile, then the law doesn’t work very well. It’s roughly the same story in Disciplined Democracy: well-intentioned reformers urge countries to adopt a host of laws to make their economies work better, and then find that getting laws passed is the least of their challenges. Of course, the collision of law and politics during the Bush years—a key part of The Collapse of Fortress Bush—is obvious.
McEttrick: What scholarly role will the Rappaport Center play at Suffolk Law, and how will the center engage the school’s broader legal academic community?
Roberts: It’s going to be important to develop substantive themes— continuing concerns—that appeal to the interests and capabilities of students and faculty inside Suffolk Law. It will take some exploring and experimenting to find out what those themes might be.
As we develop a better sense of the themes we want to emphasize, we’ll also develop links with faculty at other universities— not just in law schools, but in other disciplines such as business or politics. This is the era of academic networks. We’ll want to create informal, flexible teams of scholars with mutual interests.
I should tell you about a little experiment we undertook very recently. Within days of the announcement of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s bailout plan in September, we organized a roundtable that brought together 60 people in the faculty meeting room—faculty, students, business people, economists, and state officials, including Massachusetts State Treasurer Tim Cahill. We had a wonderful two-hour conversation in which we explored the issue. Now, I’m not sure that we will make a specialty of that particular issue. But the experiment had some of the features that we value—lots of different stakeholders, a big issue, and a real-time discussion.
I will also be teaching a class in administrative law this spring with Dean Alfred Aman. This will be an interesting experience for me,
In fact, the question is not just how alumni can assist the and I hope for students as well! Having studied the innards of government bureaucracies for much of the last 20 years, I now have a different take on some of the cases I first encountered in administrative law long ago. And we’ll also be looking at some of the ways in which big trends— privatization, globalization—should affect our thinking about accountability. In addition, I’ll be developing the curriculum for a new course in law and public policy, which will be delivered for the first time in fall 2009.
McEttrick: How can Suffolk Law’s alumni help advance the mission of the Rappaport Center?
Roberts: One of the advantages of being a school with a long history is that you acquire a powerful group of alumni. I’m already impressed by the extent to which the alumni can be found in just about any key institution that you care to name. At the Rappaport Center, we’ll work on finding ways to enlist them in our work—and the key will be to find projects that generate enthusiasm.
In fact, the questin is not just how alumni can assist the Rappaport Center; it’s also how the Rappaport Center can provide value to alumni. The center has and will continue to host public lectures and panel discussions in which we greatly encourage our alumni to participate. We were glad to have some alumni at our roundtable on the financial crisis, for example. Many local alumni attended another recent forum on problems in the state’s foster care system. And of course, we will continue to use the web so that alumni who aren’t in the city can still participate in our work. We have already posted videos of some of our events on iTunes, and we’ve set up a Rappaport Center channel on YouTube. The goal is to create a strong relationship between the Rappaport Center and the Suffolk Law community, including our alumni across the country and around the globe.
FROM THE DEANSetting the Pace
LAW BRIEFSSuffolk Law Hosts New Int'l Student Competition
ALUMNI PROFILESDavid A. Wiseman