Civitas aims to restore the traditional role of philosophical and ethical investigation to the study of public policy. Housed in the Hobby School of Public Affairs, Civitas supports educational programming and public lectures on the role of values in policymaking and the importance of ethics in policy research and practice. Some of the major areas of inquiry include:
- The nature of justice and the good life.
- The political and economic institutions and policies of a just society.
- The moral dimensions of public policies.
- The ethical dimensions of policy research and implementation.
Civitas aims to challenge people to think more deeply about their public value commitments, to make reasoned judgments about which policy arrangements they consider most just, and to offer reasonable accounts about their policy preferences to others. In this way, it aims to contribute to open and respectful public dialogue about policies, innovative problem-solving, and an understanding that all policy choices involve trade-offs between values.
“Civitas” itself is a Latin term that refers to the commonwealth, meaning literally the common property and responsibility of all cives or citizens. The name Civitas has been chosen to highlight the important moral responsibilities we all have to work with others to make our commonwealth a better place for all. Our mission is to inform and elevate civic discourse and encourage thoughtful and responsible civic participation by bringing philosophical and ethical reflection to bear on our common civic life.
What is Civitas?
Civitas is one of three centers or programs within the Hobby School for Public Affairs at the University of Houston. Together with EITM (Empirical Implications of Theoretical Models) and the Public Policy Center, Civitas will help to develop a policy school distinctive for producing students schooled in both quantitative and humanistic approaches to social science.
In the U.S., most public policy schools focus their training on empirical analysis, methods, and policy processes. Within the Hobby School, Civitas complements this traditional approach by highlighting the important place of values and ethics in public policy-making and analysis. Civitas aims to make students aware of the different value commitments and trade-offs underlying public policy debates (e.g., liberty, equality, questions about the legitimate scope of government action, concerns about gender or racial bias). At the Hobby School, students will explore not just empirical policy tools but also what a just health care, housing, energy, social security, or other policy might look like. Civitas also introduces students to the ethical principles of good policy research and analysis, and challenges them to consider different ethical dilemmas relating to public policy practice. The goal here is to help students to become ethical policy-makers and researchers committed to the highest ideals of democracy and science.
Although Civitas addresses the important place of values in public policy, it is emphatically not anti-empirical. On the contrary, Civitas is committed to the idea that an appreciation of the ways in which values shape policy agendas can help students to better understand the appropriate uses of empirical data in policy debates. Students need to understand the importance of values in public policy so that they can use empirical research appropriately to speak to the concerns of different groups of citizens.
Civitas is concerned, of course, with more than coursework. It also aims to engage people in thoughtful reflection about the justice of different policies and ethical conduct through public lectures, internships, and other activities. The lectures are public events open to the University of Houston community and residents of the greater Houston area.
The main justification for the role of Civitas in the Hobby School is that normative political theory enriches empirical training and study. Public policy students have to devise interesting questions and tackle important topics. Normative theory can help in this process by encouraging students to consider fundamental questions of political order that can contribute to positive improvements to society.
Civitas can similarly benefit the broader community. Most importantly, the interdisciplinary study it promotes cultivates the capacities of democratic citizens for self-government. It does so by providing resources and a public arena for deep and rigorous reflection on what is just or good for our society and how to best achieve it.
As politics becomes ever more polarized in this country, we need more than ever citizens and policymakers who can transcend partisan squabbling. The aim of Civitas is to encourage students and citizens to develop a deeper appreciation of the important conflicting values animating public policy choices so that they can engage with one another in reasonable debate about potential solutions acceptable to all.
What are Civitas’s Initiatives?
- New Course Development: Curriculum development is central initiative of Civitas. All students in the MPP program already take two courses on philosophy and public policy: Philosophy and Public Policy I and Philosophy and Public Policy II. Civitas will also support the development and teaching of an array of different subject area classes in the MPP program focusing on the ethical dimensions of public policy: Justice and Family Policy; Ethics, Energy, and the Environment; Health Care Ethics. Civitas will further support the development of undergraduate courses on ethics and policy associated with a projected Public Policy Minor and eventually perhaps a Public Policy Major. As part of this curriculum development, Civitas will identify interested and sympathetic faculty members and invite them to teach (or team teach) courses in the MPP program (see below).
Faculty and Postdoctoral Support
- Civitas Postdoctoral Fellowship: The Civitas Postdoctoral Fellowship would support the hiring of a new PhD in philosophy and public policy for a two-year appointment. The fellow would be expected to teach or team teach one graduate course per year on a topic related to philosophy/ethics and public policy, such as Ethics and Immigration or National Security, Cybersecurity, and Ethics. The fellow would also teach one undergraduate course per year on a topic relevant to philosophy and public policy (and ideally included in the Public Policy Minor), and help out with Civitas sponsored events and programs. Fellows would receive $45,000 per year (plus benefits), with a $1500 discretionary research stipend for conference travel or other activities.
- Civitas Interdisciplinary Scholars: In order to diversify course offerings, Civitas will pay for faculty from other colleges and departments occasionally to teach (or team teach) courses in the MPP program or undergraduate courses contributing to the Minor or Major. Faculty might come from the Honor’s College, Engineering, or other programs.
Undergraduate Outreach and Support and Graduate Support
- Civitas Undergraduate Internship Scholarship: Civitas will offer two $2000 undergraduate internship scholarships per year to promote ethical reflection on public policy and public service. Students will apply to work a semester-long internship (160 hours) at an approved organization in some policy area that interests them (education, health care, criminal justice, air quality). They will at the same time do an independent study with the Civitas director or affiliated Civitas faculty member exploring the intersection of ethics and public policy in their internship area. The director/faculty member will provide the student with a set of readings for the semester and the student and faculty member will meet 5-7 times over the course of the semester to discuss assigned readings, reflect on their internship experience, and plan out a research project. Over the course of the semester, students will gain practical internship experience, gain theoretical insight into their area of interest, and write a research paper on ethics and public policy.
- Civitas Graduate Internship Scholarship: Civitas will offer one $3200 graduate internship scholarship per year along with tuition remission for the internship class to a qualified and interested MPP student. The guidelines for the internship are similar to those discussed above in regard to the undergraduate internship scholarship.
- Lecture Series on Philosophy and Public Policy: Civitas will sponsor 2-4 public lectures per year on topics relating to values and public policy, research ethics, the nature of justice and the good life, and related topics. The purpose of the lectures will be to increase visibility for the Hobby School and enrich public discussion. An effort will be made to advertise the lectures broadly to the University of Houston community and residents of the greater Houston area. In the fall of 2017, Civitas sponsored a public discussion on the “Ethics of Gentrification” featuring Professor Ronald Sundstrom (Professor of Philosophy, The University of San Francisco) and Doctor Assata Richards (Founding Director, Sankofa Research Institute). The event was held at the Historic Eldorado Ballroom and attended by roughly 130 people (probably one-third from the University of Houston and two-thirds from the Houston community). In the Spring of 2018, Professor Susan Collins (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Notre Dame University) will deliver a lecture entitled, “ War and the Good Life: The Spartan Regime.” Civitas will also sponsor a lecture by Professor Naomi Zack (Professor of Philosophy, University of Oregon) on “Ethics in a Disaster.” Two individuals from the Houston community will provide brief commentaries after the lecture on social justice issues relating to Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts. Possible topics for lectures during the 2018-2019 academic year include: “The Merits of Markets and Public Policy;” “Public Policy and the Limits of Markets;” “Ethics and Energy Policy;” “Mental Health and Social Justice;” “Justice and Early Childhood Education.”
- Institute for Applied Justice (IAJ): The Institute for Applied Justice is a proposed collaboration between the Hobby School of Public Affairs, the Political Science Department, and the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston to engage students in thinking about how liberal democratic principles of justice can be brought to bear on the implementation of policies at the street-level in areas such as social work and policing. Although philosophers have given a great deal of thought to the nature of justice at the broad social level (constitutional principles, general political and economic institutions), relatively little attention has been given to thinking about the achievement of justice in the personal interactions between public agents and citizens at the street-level. Yet, as Michael Lipsky argued in his classic work Street-Level Bureaucracy (1980), whether or not citizens experience institutions and policies as just or not depends in large part on how street-level workers use their discretionary judgments to implement policies. The IAJ will focus on this important but neglected topic. An interdisciplinary seminar would bring together students from Political Theory, Public Policy, and Social Work to think about how principles of liberal democracy (e.g., liberty or equality) might be applied at the street-level and the nature of ethical conduct in professions such as social work and policing. In conjunction with the seminar, students would participate in an internship or shadow program whereby they would experience street-level work firsthand. A speaker series and conference would also be organized to support this research. Although the main focus of the seminar and conference would be to explore how the street-level implementation of policies can be better aligned with liberal democratic principles of justice, an important secondary concern would be to think about how our understanding of just policies and institutions is changed through a close engagement with individuals on the ground and the street-level problems of caseworkers, police officers, and so forth. Relatedly, some attention would be given to thinking about how state service administrations might be reformed in order to enable street-level bureaucrats to carry out their work in ways that align more closely with liberty and equality.
The Hobby School of Public Affairs thanks Branch Banking and Trust (BB&T) for their support of Civitas. Learn more about BB&T at www.bbt.com.