The Biden Administration took office amid a compounding series of crises, and only effective emergency management is going to help successfully navigate them. The COVID-19 pandemic is at an all-time high, while vaccine distribution is stalled. That’s taken a toll on the economy, as businesses have gone under and people are put out of work in ever-increasing numbers. On top of that, the nation has spent most of the last year embroiled in protests over racial injustice, even as the pandemic disproportionately affects communities of color. And partisan politics has escalated to a violent fever pitch that culminated in the riot at the Capitol, leaving many Americans questioning the resilience of their institutions.
So – what comes first?
Tonya Thornton, assistant professor in the Master of Public Administration program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said vaccine distribution has to be the top priority. The pandemic is compounding every other crisis. The economy can’t begin to heal, nor can communities of color, until peoples’ health is assured.
In addition, systemic issues usually have only a short amount of time during which it’s likely policy can be enacted to address them. And the pandemic is an obstacle to that already closing window.
“We call it ‘punctuated equilibrium theory;’ it’s when something happens that is so dramatic it opens a policy window in order for legislators to pass meaningful acts,” said Thornton, who also serves as the coordinator for the Schar School’s Graduate Certificate in Emergency Management and Homeland Security program.
It’s most often seen in the aftermath of natural disasters, although human-induced crises are becoming more common, she said. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was one such disaster. So was the September 11 terrorist attack. That culminated in policy action that created the Department of Homeland Security, among other things. But Hurricane Katrina did not see the same kind of action in its aftermath, nor did Hurricane Sandy, or the string of storms that struck Texas, Florida or Puerto Rico with deadly effect over the next two decades.
“So now these are becoming more systemic issues, because there are more of them. We keep seeing them happen, but we haven’t seen any meaningful legislation move forward that really addresses it,” Thornton said. “I think if you do not push policy through that window, when it’s open during a punctuated event, then you’ve lost that momentum. And then the next time, there may be a little less momentum, but over time, people become almost apathetic, complacent.”
But not all policy requires congressional action. And that’s where having an administration filled with trained, effective emergency managers can make a difference. That’s why, Thornton said, the Schar School puts an equal focus on practical experience as it does academic achievement. Its proximity to the nation’s capital provides access to public sector practitioners at the highest level. Schar School faculty provides students with the kinds of connections they need to really apply their work.
And that kind of application is a fundamental part of all of the Schar School’s programs. Students are encouraged to take internships and jobs that give them real-world experience, as well as collaborate on panels and write for books or academic journals. The Schar School offers many of the advantages of smaller, private schools, while being part of a large R1 institution, George Mason University.
This is true across the school, which also includes prestigious security studies programs. Demand for the school’s master’s program in Biodefense, which teaches the analytical skills and knowledge needed to address security risks posed by both human-made and natural biological threats—including pandemics—has skyrocketed. Graduates of this and other Schar School programs are greatly in demand for their professional skills and knowledge. In fact, George Mason University is one of the top ten “feeder” schools for the U.S. Foreign Service, according to the Department of State.
“Not only is the Schar School really engaged in student development and connection with communities of practice, we are also doing cutting-edge research that engages other organizations and institutes,” Thornton said. “For example, Schar School faculty serve as key experts on issues of emergency management and critical infrastructure for the Homeland Defense & Security Information Analysis Center through a series of articles, reports, podcasts and other items. This work is housed within the Defense Department, so that any employee there has access to our thought leadership.”
Thornton said many students at the Schar School are returning to school after working for a decade or more, looking to either enhance their careers or simply expand their knowledge. But it’s also not just about access to information at that point. It’s about having access to people in other fields across government, which facilitates cross-agency or cross-organizational collaboration. The Schar School also maintains a very strong alumni network to help those relationships continue to develop into the future.
All of these help make students better managers during crises like the country is currently experiencing, because that mixture of practical experience and academic knowledge instills a sense of how to get things done correctly while under pressure. And the community it builds is more agile, more flexible, and better able to collaborate to support one another through the crisis.
“It’s a different environment, a unique environment that really puts our students in a position for success,” Thornton said.