New Center Tackles Public-Sector Reform

A new cross-disciplinary program will train young leaders to reshape schools and other public institutions

Fall 2011

After working for more than three years as the chief accountability officer at the New York City Department of Education, Professor James S. Liebman is spearheading Columbia Law School’s new interdisciplinary Center for Public Research and Leadership, a collaborative initiative aimed at boosting the effectiveness of public-sector institutions—starting with public schools.

Launched this spring, the center strives to produce policy research with rapid, real-world applications, and to create a pipeline of talented professionals who can lead public-sector institutions undergoing systemic transformations. While the center will initially focus on K-12 educational policy and practice, Liebman plans to eventually extend its purview to the public sector as a whole and aims for it to become financially self-sufficient in its third year.

The idea for the center—a joint initiative with Columbia Business School and Teachers College—germinated during Liebman’s service in the New York City school system while on leave from the Law School. During that time, he met a stream of talented, enthusiastic young educators eager to promote structural changes in the grade school system as teachers and principals, or from the organizational center. Many of those individuals could not, however, find a cross-disciplinary education that would equip them with the broad skills and knowledge needed to effect such changes. This training, Liebman said, is scattered across various disciplines—applied math, business, education, engineering, law, policy, and sociology—from which promising young leaders are forced to choose.

“No single graduate or professional program provides the training they need,” Liebman said recently, adding that many potential leaders abandon their plans altogether, while others often continue on shaky theoretical and practical footing.

This past spring, 15 students participated in the center’s first two pilot classes: Public-Sector Problem-Solving, in which students examined how organizations spanning the public and private sectors approach and implement structural change; and Public-Sector Structural Change, which concentrated on educational reforms.

“This is one of the most exciting pedagogical ventures I’ve been involved in in over 25 years of teaching,” Liebman said.