Q & A with Dean Matthew R. Auer

by Caroline Paris Paczkowski

Matthew R. Auer became dean of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs on July 1, 2017. We sat down with Dean Auer to hear his thoughts about the state of the School, his plans for the future, and to get to know him a little better. Let’s meet “Auer New Dean”:

Since taking the reins at SPIA, what has most impressed you about the University and our students?

I’m most impressed with what I would call the “big-small dialectic.” The University is at once really big and really small, all the way down to the individual student experience. For me, the first UGA football game was of the “big” variety; more than 90,000 fans – mostly Dawgs, of course – all single-minded and focused on the task at hand. At the other end of the scale is hearing about a SPIA student’s highly customized and utterly captivating study abroad experience in Oxford. Excellent research universities and units within those universities (like SPIA), tend to be good at both “big” and “small.”

What do you see as some of SPIA’s greatest opportunities?

Some of SPIA’s greatest opportunities reside in the area of making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. For example, consider that SPIA has incredible international engagement taking place not only within its International Affairs department, but also, its Department of Public Administration and Policy (PADP), and yet, PADP doesn’t begin to get the attention it should for its research, teaching, and outreach work in the international arena.  I can imagine more intense, deeper engagement from all of our departments in some of our graduate-level degree programs, and possibly, the creation of new graduate programs with an international focus.

SPIA’s expertise can also be in the vanguard of redefining traditional areas of study and service. We have superb depth in the area of human rights, for example. Our experts can, and do, make the case that human rights are integral to broader notions of “security.” Security is more than just a traditional notion of military might or homeland security. It’s about robust democratic institutions in the U.S. and abroad, laws that protect civil liberties, well-functioning courts, accountable public leaders and public institutions.  We are very strong in all of these areas. SPIA can build on these strengths and help shape the national and global discourse about human security and public wellbeing.

What are some areas you plan to focus on in the immediate future?

In the arena of international affairs, we have wonderful hiring opportunities and the ability to strengthen and reshape some of our educational offerings. Political Science – and political scientists – play an outsized role in key SPIA centers like the Center for the Study of Global Issues (GLOBIS) and the Survey Research Center. I am enjoying working with Ryan Bakker and Tracy Elder to position GLOBIS for continued success. Meanwhile, the Survey Research Center is in its inaugural year. The possibilities for it are incredibly exciting, and Trey Hood has done an amazing job of staffing-up the center. I am working with colleagues in Public Administration and Policy on a concept for promoting internships and job placements of SPIA students from underrepresented backgrounds in local, county, and state government agencies. This is part of a larger, more intentional approach to promoting diversity and inclusion at SPIA, generally. I am also excited about getting my share of face-time with students, including at SPIA coffee hours and in other settings.

What keeps you busy outside of the office?

Well, SPIA and UGA extracurricular activities keep me busy outside of the office! There are amazing UGA-hosted diversions in the evenings and on the weekends. And how about those Athens restaurants! I haven’t tried an eatery I didn’t like. What I haven’t sampled, however, is Athens’ fabled music scene. More adventures await, I guess.

What has been your greatest accomplishment?

The accomplishments I’m most proud of are creating lasting, honors-level programs for undergraduates and rich study abroad experiences for students. My hope is to leave a comparable legacy in these or other areas while serving as SPIA’s dean.

You are in your car on the way to work, what are you listening to?

I’m a dedicated radio-listener. I surf between NPR, political “talk radio,” and whatever is playing on the “oldies” stations.

What/who inspires your leadership?

I’m something of a “career student.” By that, I mean, I’m always learning from others, and typically, that learning takes place in the academic setting. Leaders who have inspired me, most deeply, have included academic leaders I’ve worked for directly. I count my former boss, Clayton Spencer, president of Bates College, as an inspiring leader. Susan Collins, U.S. Senator from Maine, also inspires me. I can’t help marveling at her courage and her thoughtful, principled approach to lawmaking.

If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be?

This is a very difficult question. Many people are likely to mention Abraham Lincoln as a preferred dinner companion; I’m no exception. The world was robbed by his assassination. I sometimes wonder whether the memoirs he never wrote might have saved the planet from some of the military calamities of the 20th century.

If you could ask your pet three questions, what would they be?

I have no pets currently, though for a brief period my new Athens home served as a roost for more than 50 large brown bats and free-tailed Mexican bats. The questions I’d pose to them: “Why did you leave?” and “Couldn’t you have at least said, ‘thanks’?”

What’s a great book you’ve read recently?

I’m a little behind on my reading list, but Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy, which chronicles elite universities’ historical involvement in the slave trade and the political economy of slavery, is a significant contribution to the study of American history, generally, and the history of American higher education, specifically.

What would you like your legacy to be either at SPIA or for your life in general?

At the broadest level, I try to leave institutions stronger and better prepared for a fast-changing world than when I first joined them.  At Bates College, for example, I worked pretty hard to suffuse computer and information science across all of the major educational divisions in the college. At SPIA, I am eager to strengthen the profile of a school that lives in a very competitive marketplace and that has a vital role to play in the public arena. I want SPIA to be recognized as essential to the key debates in public affairs, and to produce graduates who make major, positive contributions to the study and practice of politics, policymaking, public administration, and international affairs.