Implementing the Mission of the Robertson Foundation

I. The Mission of the Robertson Foundation

The Robertson Foundation was created in 1961 as a result of the generosity of Marie Robertson and her husband, Charles, a member of the Princeton Class of 1926. The mission of the Foundation, as set forth in its Certificate of Incorporation, is “[t]o establish or maintain and support at Princeton University, as part of the Woodrow Wilson School, a Graduate School, where men and women dedicated to public service may prepare themselves for careers in government service, with particular emphasis on the education of such persons for careers in those areas of the Federal Government that are concerned with international relations and affairs.”

As described by Robert F. Goheen, Princeton’s President when the Foundation was created, from its inception the Foundation has aspired to “bring about the development of a whole new level of post-graduate, professional education in the Woodrow Wilson School” amid “the changing requirements of a shifting world.”
The Foundation’s mission is set forth as a means to reach a larger ultimate objective: to “strengthen the Government of the United States and increase its ability and determination to defend and extend freedom throughout the world by improving the facilities for the training and education of men and women for government service.” As President Goheen explained in a 1961 memo to the University’s trustees:

In less formal language, the objective is to develop, in the Woodrow Wilson School, post-graduate programs of instruction that will augment the flow of well-prepared people into positions of public responsibility and set new patterns of excellence throughout the nation for the training of men [and women] for the public service, with particular attention to international and foreign affairs.

II. The Interpretation of the Mission

The mission stated above provides the Woodrow Wilson School with a clear set of goals for those portions of its program supported by the Robertson Foundation: The Graduate School should enroll men and women dedicated to public service and provide them with knowledge and skills that qualify them for careers in government service. It should make a special effort to prepare students for service to the federal government, upon graduation or later in their careers, in the areas of international relations and affairs.

From the earliest days of the Robertson Foundation, the School has pursued this mandate by choosing students dedicated to public service and providing a rigorous multi-disciplinary training that enables them to become leaders in government. Reflecting the traditions of the larger university of which the School is an integral part, the curriculum takes a long-term approach, emphasizing fundamental analytic methods and intellectual breadth rather than narrowly targeted vocational skills. By doing so, the School prepares students to deal not only with the immediate policy challenges confronting the government when they graduate and enter public service, but also with the very different, and often unanticipated, challenges that will await them in future decades when they may assume major roles within the government.

The wisdom of this approach to preparing students for government service is even more evident today than it was when the mission was developed 42 years ago. Globalization has blurred the boundaries between international and domestic policy and, as a result, many government departments which once dealt almost exclusively with domestic concerns are increasingly involved with international issues, and departments once thought of as exclusively focused on international issues are increasingly concerned with the domestic implications of their actions. The nature of government has also changed. More and more often, the U.S. government collaborates with non-governmental organizations and private firms, many of which provide services that were once the primary province of government. Experience outside of government is sometimes an essential stepping stone to becoming an effective public leader. Many of the School’s graduates can expect their careers to involve movement between governmental and non-government positions.

In light of the complex and dynamic world of public policy, the Foundation’s mission is best served by providing students dedicated to public service with the knowledge and skills that will serve them well in a variety of careers. The ability of the government of the United States to defend and extend freedom throughout the world depends on effective leadership not only within the government, but in the many organizations that collaborate with the government in carrying out its objectives.

III. The Implementation of the Mission

Admissions policy

The School accepts a diverse group of students into its three graduate programs: the 2-year Master in Public Affairs (MPA), the 1-year mid-career Master in Public Policy (MPP), and the PhD. Consistent with the Foundation’s mission, a prerequisite for admission to the MPA and MPP programs is a “dedicat[ion] to public service,” with a commitment to public policy research being a prerequisite for the PhD program. The School seeks to develop the strongest possible applicant pool and to admit the best possible students. In recognition of the many paths to leadership positions in the government and the many private organizations that now perform governmental functions, the School looks for students with experience and interest in serving the public in a variety of ways: through work in all forms of government, with international organizations, with non-governmental organizations, and as producers of research that informs public policy. The diversity of the student body itself contributes to the Foundation’s mission. During their careers, the School’s graduates will collaborate and interact with those who work in many areas of public service. An important component of their education is exposure to classmates with a broad set of experiences.

To advance the mission’s emphasis on international relations and affairs, the majority of students the School admits plan to specialize in international areas. In addition, the School has a special program with the U.S. State Department for admission of Foreign Service officers into its mid-career MPP program. However, the School also admits students who are committed to work in the domestic arena, both because domestic policy is an important component of public service, and because students with international interests learn from their interactions with domestically-oriented students.

The fellowship program of the Woodrow Wilson School is exceptionally generous and is unique among public policy schools. The fellowship support is of enormous importance in encouraging students to pursue public service as their fundamental career goal. Students elsewhere who are weighed down with significant debt often find it impossible to accept the relatively low-paying jobs offered by government and the non-profit organizations that work with governments, both foreign and domestic. Because the School’s graduates are not burdened with debt, it is possible for them to accept the relatively low-paying jobs offered by government and the non-profit sector.


The curriculum is the single most important vehicle through which students are prepared for careers in government service. Due to the dynamic nature of public and international affairs, the Graduate School has developed a teaching program that is responsive to change. But at its core it provides students with a set of fundamental skills in policy analysis that are timeless. Indeed, more than 40 years later, President Goheen’s challenge remains the School’s focus:

The prime question before us in the School, it seems to me, is how we can help selected individuals develop the range of mind and the sharpness of analytical power to let us hope some day that many of them will emerge as leaders and intellectual pace-setters in government, not simply managers or bureaucratic cogs. Specifically how to bring about such results is of course not at all easy. I am quite sure, however, that we won’t bring them about unless we keep our sights high and our attitudes significantly philosophic and liberal.

Currently, all graduate students are provided with a core education in the political process, economic analysis, statistics, and psychology. After completing the core, students specialize by studying within one of four broad fields of study—international affairs, development policy, domestic policy, or economic policy. Students may further specialize through participation in one of several cross-cutting Certificate programs that are sponsored by the School’s research centers. All second-year students participate in a policy workshop that asks them to focus on a particular public policy problem and provide a report for a “client.” This exercise is important in demonstrating to students how the analytic skills they learned in the first year have important real-world applications.

In order to support the curriculum, the Woodrow Wilson School naturally depends primarily on its faculty. It also employs other Princeton faculty whose areas of expertise are relevant to public policy. Finally, it hires lecturers from outside of Princeton to teach some courses. These lecturers, many of whom have first-hand experience in the federal government or other public policy settings, bring an important practitioner perspective to the classroom.

Non-classroom learning

The School’s curriculum is supplemented by multiple opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. The School sponsors lectures by distinguished policy practitioners; its research centers sponsor seminars, lectures, and conferences in which students participate; work-study opportunities are made available to students. Direct policy experience is an important component of training. MPA students are required to complete a summer internship between the first and second year, and the School provides the resources necessary for students to accept unpaid internships. Some students—particularly those in international areas—find it useful to take a “middle year out” and gain more extensive work experience. Other students whose career goals require a thorough understanding of ongoing policy research collaborate with faculty members on their research projects.

Career advice

Critical to helping students pursue careers in government service are the career advice and resources that the School provides to its graduates. The School’s career services office recognizes that no student, no matter how well-prepared, finds it easy to secure an entry-level government job or identify a path to leadership positions in government later in his or her career. The office also recognizes that many jobs in the not-for-profit and private sectors today provide opportunities for new graduates to serve governments, both foreign and domestic. It accordingly offers a full range of services: it helps students prepare for interviews; provides specific practice sessions for students participating in the foreign service exam process; conducts information sessions and panel discussions to expose students to a range of professional opportunities; offers workshops designed to expand a number of skills—including public speaking and negotiation—critical for success in today’s work place; helps identify summer internship opportunities, manages the grant funding for these internships, and coordinates the reviews—by the employer and by the student—of each summer experience; maintains an extensive alumni network that students draw on as they search for jobs; and coordinates job fairs and recruitment visits from the many government agencies and non-governmental organizations that employ the School’s graduates.


The Woodrow Wilson School cannot fulfill its mandate without a world-class faculty. Students come to the School because of its collection of leading scholars, and governments recruit its students because of the training these scholars provide. The School has a multi-disciplinary faculty currently drawn from the fields of economics, law, political science, psychology, sociology, demography, history, and the natural sciences. This diversity reflects the complexity of public policy: the knowledge and skills required to produce well-trained public servants cut across disciplinary lines. The School’s faculty members are selected not only because they are leaders in their respective fields, but also because their specific interests and areas of study contribute to the School’s educational mission of training students in the analysis and implementation of public policy and enabling them to pursue careers in government service. The School also hires visiting practitioners whose courses provide students with a deeper understanding of the practice of policy-making.


Like Princeton University more generally, the Woodrow Wilson School reflects a conviction that first-rate education and cutting-edge research are mutually reinforcing enterprises. By bringing the most vital and important public policy research into the classroom, the School’s professors improve the capacity of students to think creatively about novel policy problems. To facilitate this intensive form of education, the School aims to be a leading center of public policy research, in part through the support of a set of research centers and programs that focus on various policy areas. Examples include international migration and urbanization; science, technology, and environmental policy; development policy; democracy; law; child policy; health policy; and education policy. The School provides summer support to faculty so that they may pursue their research throughout the year.

This research infrastructure is vital to the Foundation’s mission. The School cannot attract a distinguished faculty and achieve the mission without providing a stimulating and active research environment. Moreover, the School’s research activities directly benefit its students. As former Dean John P. Lewis wrote in a 1972 report to the Robertson Foundation Board:

[A]n indispensable element of any graduate school exerting its potential for leadership is vigorous research. In our case this means in large part a program of policy-oriented research both impacting on public affairs externally and feeding back into the teaching effort.

Many of the School’s research centers sponsor courses and Certificate programs; they organize seminars, lectures, and conferences that students attend; they facilitate interactions between faculty and policy professionals; and they provide opportunities for students to become directly involved in policy research. Finally, by maintaining the School’s reputation as a leading center of policy research, the school is able to attract the best students and place them in the best jobs.

Outreach and communication activities

The School conducts outreach and communication activities that raise its stature and visibility in the U.S. and around the world. These activities currently include a Washington Seminar Series attended by School alumni and D.C.-based policy-makers; the production of policy briefs that disseminate faculty research to policy-makers; the maintenance of a Web-based video library of public lectures and other School events; and a media office that publicizes the School’s accomplishments and interacts with the press. These activities serve the Foundation’s mission because they aid in the recruitment and placement of the School’s graduate students, and because they directly contribute to policy dialogue on the important issues in which the School is engaged.

Outreach efforts also seek to engage alumni. These efforts reinforce alumni connections to the school. Engaged alumni support the career services office in its efforts to identify summer internships and first jobs for current students, as well as subsequent jobs for their fellow alumni, and they participate in career panels and student training sessions.

Integration with the University

The Woodrow Wilson School is the intellectual center of teaching and scholarship on public and international affairs at Princeton University. Students and faculty from across the University attend lectures and events sponsored by the School and participate in the life of the School’s research centers and programs. The School collaborates with other departments and groups within the University, with the goal of strengthening teaching and research on public policy at Princeton. Key examples include the connection between the School’s Science, Technology and Environmental Policy group and the Princeton Environmental Institute, and the School’s collaboration with the University in the establishment of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.

The links between the School and the University serve the Foundation’s mission in a variety of ways: by creating a richer and more diverse intellectual environment in which the School’s graduate students can learn; by fostering the development of multidisciplinary policy research; and by encouraging policy-focused faculty from other departments to engage with and teach the School’s students. The School’s commitment to developing strong ties within the University stems from its recognition that society is well served if its public servants are informed in fields ranging from philosophy and ethics to science and technology, and if students and scholars in other fields appreciate the public policy implications of their work.

IV. The Woodrow Wilson School in a Changing World

As the Woodrow Wilson School continues to prepare its graduate students for what President Goheen described as “the changing requirements of a shifting world,” the one certainty about the future of public service in the federal government and elsewhere, especially in the field of international affairs, is that change will be continual. The abrupt end of the Cold War, the sudden insecurity felt by the United States in light of September 11th, and the triumph of democracy worldwide are only a few examples of dramatic changes that have rapidly reshaped the public policy agenda over recent years. To fulfill its mission and to train excellent public servants for this fast-changing world, the Woodrow Wilson School must continually adapt its teaching and research programs, while also remaining steadfast to the highest standards of quality in the students it admits, in the faculty it recruits, in the programs it offers, and in the opportunities it provides for learning, for leadership, and for service.