A Who’s Who of Famous MPA’s

We often discuss on this blog that students come to the MPA program with a variety of career goals across all sectors and levels of government. For my first blog post of 2019, I wanted to have some fun and highlight some notable or famous people that have MPA diplomas hanging on their walls. I’ll also highlight how something each MPA alum does connects to our program here at UNC.

Klaus Schwab is the founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, an international institution for public-private cooperation. He received an MPA from Harvard in addition to his doctorates in Engineering and Economics. The WEF’s collaborative approach between sectors is at the heart of much of what UNC MPA students learn about in courses like “Institutions and Values,” units on collaboration and innovation in “Organizational Theory” and “Public Service Leadership” and electives like “Economic Development” “Community Development,” “Intergovernmental Relations,” and “Collaborative Governance.” Schwab spoke at Harvard about how important his MPA was to his establishment of the WEF. He said that “nothing has influenced [his] life more than” his MPA experience, considering it “an essential pillar in the buildup of the WEF.”

Many students come to the program with an interest in achieving leadership positions in Criminal Justice. Frank Spangenberg got his MPA from Harvard to further his career in Law Enforcement with the NYPD. He later further bolstered his academic record with a PhD in Criminal Justice from John Jay. Despite his phenomenal academic record, he is better known for his ground-breaking run as a contestant on Jeopardy. He was the first contestant to break $100,000 and for many years held the record for most money won. He went on to return for a variety of other Jeopardy winners tournaments, including the 2005 Tournament of Champions during his time as an MPA student. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that trivia is a common activity and source of bonding for many current MPA students at UNC. Affectionately dubbed the “Beeracrats,” a group of current UNC MPA’s are a veritable force at trivia nights across Chapel Hill and Carrboro (especially at Linda’s). Per the then rules of Jeopardy, Frank donated a large share of his initial winnings to a Gift of Love Hospice. Prospective MPA students interested in non-profit organizations may connect with this video of Frank telling a story of a chance encounter with a volunteer from the Hospice who told him how much his gift meant to the organization.

Our next MPA did not appeared on Jeopardy, but she did star in the 1999 Mystery Thriller “Double Jeopardy.” Even though Ashley Judd roots for the wrong color blue on the basketball court (she’s an avid Kentucky supporter), she showed her heart is in the right place and committed to public service when she earned an MPA from Harvard in 2010. She told the New York Times too that she wanted to get an MPA so she could “immerse [her]self in some very serious, earnest, practical learning with people who have literally dedicated all they have to public service.” Some come through UNC’s MPA program to work in government agencies, but others want to work with nonprofits to advance causes they believe in, operationalizing their MPA-knowledge as activists and change makers. Many students have specific policy goals to achieve, like ending sexual violence, combating homelessness, expanding affordable housing, or increasing access to the arts. As someone pursing the Non-Profit Management Concentration, I have the pleasure of learning alongside these students everyday. Judd uses skills from her MPA degree as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Empowerment of Adolescent Girls. She appreciated that like herself, MPA classmates “were shamelessly unapologetic about being do-gooders.” She is now continuing her education, enrolling in a PhD program at The University of California-Berkeley..


Ashley Judd celebrates her MPA graduation. Though this photo was taken at Harvard, we approve of the Carolina Blue in the globes! (Photo by Josh Reynolds, Associated Press)


Continuing our connection to Hollywood, the memoir of Charles “Sully” Sullenberger was adapted into the 2016 blockbuster film “Sully.”  Starring Tom Hanks, it tells the story of how Sullenberger successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after an engine failure, saving the lives of everyone on board. You may have already known that about Sully, but what you may not have known is that he has a deep commitment to public service. He served in the Air Force and also earned an MPA from Northern Colorado University in 1979. Now, we can’t promise you that Tom Hanks will portray you on the big screen if you get an MPA, but you will learn about key leadership skills and competencies that will help you manage difficult situations that have serious consequences for those you serve. See this previous blog post about connections to between the MPA program and Emergency Management.

I hope that this journey through famous MPA’s has been as fun to read as it was to research! We at the UNC MPA program hope that everyone had a happy holiday. We are looking forward to a new year exploring more MPA Matters!