November 6, 2017

Q&A with Leslie Smith, director of the Governor M. Jodi Rell Center for Public Service

John Stearns
John Stearns
Leslie Smith

It's difficult to do in 140 characters or less, but one could argue there's no better time to highlight the mission of the Governor M. Jodi Rell Center for Public Service at the University of Hartford. That mission is to provide a community and academic forum for discussing ethics in government, the importance of civil discourse in politics, citizen involvement in public service and government, and to encourage careers in public service.

Leslie Smith, who has taught American government at UHart since 2000, became Rell Center director Aug. 1. She got her bachelor's degree in political science at Trinity College in 1986 and her first job was researching the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies for a Washington law firm.

The work sparked Smith's lasting curiosity to understand what was going on in American government, who was doing what and why. Later, she worked as a legal assistant at Robinson + Cole in Hartford. At the firm, she got her master's in public policy at Trinity in 1991, later becoming adjunct professor at UHart.

What's the biggest challenge and opportunity facing the Rell Center and are students as inclined to seek public service today as when you started teaching?

In the current highly partisan and charged national atmosphere, people are hesitant to get involved. Engaging students and the community in the mission of the Rell Center is the challenge. This current national political environment is a great opportunity for the Rell Center to show how people can make a difference in their local communities or state government.

We connect students with public officials, highlight what public service is and how to pursue a career in public service, and promote civil discussion in public meetings and around elections. The center can also make a difference by encouraging students and others that the best way forward is to participate in the civic life of our communities.

What's different about teaching American government today than 17 years ago?

Students are much more oriented toward visual, online resources and the volume of information available now can be overwhelming. Instead of explaining a congressional hearing, I can put a hearing in front of a class in real-time for analysis.

I think today's students are as engaged in politics as they were in 2000, but we are now in a significantly different political environment. Students need more context to understand the rapid shift in expectations, norms and partisan intensity.

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