Jim Svara: The Man to Know

A good student of local government management will tell you that Jim Svara is the man to know and learn from when pursing an MPA degree. For those new to the field, Svara’s story is an indication of the broad and tangible connections between the study of public administration and the many interests students may have.

Svara, visiting professor with the UNC School of Government, wrote three of the textbooks commonly used in MPA programs, one of which is required reading—The Ethics Primer for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprofit Organizations.

When asked about his long interest in public administration, he cited the same commitment that he feels drives students into the field today.


“As far back as the nineteenth century, people attracted to government have had an idealistic commitment to serve the public and to make society better,” Svara said. “However, until after World War II, most managers did not have a college degree, much less an advanced education. Over time, we have refined the ways we prepare people to pursue that aspiration.”

Svara always wanted to be a teacher. Early on, he thought he would teach high school but eventually found the university level to be a better fit. His early interest in international relations took him to South America, Africa, and India, where he visited local community development programs. Even then, his broader interest had a local connection. His volunteer involvement in the 1968 US presidential primary election connected him to a local reform movement that focused on city council elections in New Haven, Connecticut. In the 1990s, he returned to his interest in comparative government as part of a study of local government chief executives in 14 countries. And now, one of the areas in which he is recognized as a leading scholar involves the roles and responsibilities of elected and administrative officials in local governments.

Svara’s expertise in local government ethics was tapped recently when he was asked to co-chair a group that reviewed the American Society for Public Administration code of ethics, which specifies accepted behavior for professional managers. He now chairs the committee that will recommend ways to implement the new code.

Svara followed his interests to find his path. And he advises graduate students to keep an open mind. “Young professionals today, more than ever, may move across sectors in the course of their careers,” he said, “starting in local government then perhaps going to nonprofit and coming back again.”

An MPA education provides a foundation of understanding both the conceptual issues of public administration and practical tools for leadership, and the skills are applicable to both government and nonprofit fields. “But the key,” Svara said, “is that students develop a commitment to ongoing inquiry.”

An MPA@UNC education is often noted for being a “generalist” degree, which prepares students for just the kind of a flexibility that Svara invites. In addition, he observes one quality that distinguishes UNC-Chapel Hill’s MPA program from other public administration programs: a greater focus on the key relationships within the local governmental structure and the manager’s relationships with and responsibilities to elected officials, the organization, and the public.

During his tenure at the School of Government, Svara will be working with other faculty members on research projects and will be teaching in MPA classes, both on campus and online, as well as in classes offered directly to public officials, including city and county managers. Previously, he taught at Arizona State University School of Public Affairs, where he was also doctoral director, director of the Center for Urban Innovation, and a founding board member of the Alliance for Innovation. He has taught political science and public administration for UNC-Greensboro and North Carolina State University, where he served as director of the public administration program and head of the department, and has been a visiting scholar in the Department of Political Science and Management at Southern Denmark University. He has written numerous books, book chapters, and journal articles on local government politics, management, ethics, and leadership.

Svara earned a BA in history from the University of Kentucky and an MA in international relations and PhD in political science from Yale University. He has been recognized with multiple awards and honors from the American Society for Public Administration, the International City/County Management Association, and the National Academy of Public Administration.