The Training School for Public Service

In the second decade of the 20th century the Bureau of Municipal Research was riding high. The group had survived the attacks of Tammany Hall and its reputation was spreading throughout the United States. Local civic groups began creating their own Bureaus based on the New York model; however, lacking experience, they increasingly turned to the original for expertise.

Members of the New York Bureau were frequently lent out on projects and many quickly obtained high positions in other cities, permanently leaving New York. This drain was one of the reasons that Dr. William Allen, one of the founders of the bureau, decided to create a school program to provide training to public administration professionals. Mary Williamson Averell Harriman,  widow of the railroad tycoon Edward H. Harriman (who was one of the earliest supporters of the Bureau), agreed to contribute $40,000 — about $1 million today — to the cause, leading to the birth of the Training School for Public Service in 1911.


Edward Harriman

The School aimed to train men — women were only added later — to administer public business, improve the methods used in government service and to generally advance the fields of political science, accountancy, engineering, law, public hygiene, school administration, journalism, medicine and any other fields that related to public service.

In the first year, 485 applications and inquiries were received from 106 cities in 25 states. The first class, of 25 students, included eight studying finance (either Ph.D’s or already engaged in some sort of business), a lawyer, an army engineer, a sanitary engineer, a civil engineer, a school superintendent and two recent college graduates.

Admission was based on certain minimums including “…good physical condition, able to do exacting work under continuous pressure,” as well as  “habits of industry, force of character, and a genuine interest in public affairs.” Also vital: “Courtesy, tact, good address, maturity, discriminating judgement, and ability to command respect and confidence…”


Students of the training school attend a session on public accounting

New York City was to be a giant laboratory in which these hopeful public servants were going to hone their skills. However at first no formal curriculum was contemplated. Each student was under the general supervision of the director of field work and was also assigned to one of the men in the Bureau for supervision in the particular field work.

There was no set length of time the students were required to spend at the school, most doing between one and two years. Eventually a more rigid two-year program was formulated where the students split their time between theory received in a class or lecture setting and the practical portion where they worked alongside a member of the Bureau, on assignments and projects.

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Assignment sheet for the Training School for Public Service

The program was not for the faint of heart or those not ready to hit the ground running.

When a new student first entered the program, he was given an assignment right away. If he failed to perform his first task satisfactorily, he had to withdraw from the School. The thoroughness and follow-through required of the students made the program unique.

A graduate who attended part time between 1912 and 1916 remembers being given an assignment to attend the meeting of the City Council. Having only recently arrived in New York, the neophyte first had a difficult time locating City Hall. Once there, he saw that the only business transacted by the Council that day was passage of one resolution appropriating $25,000 for paving a certain street.

The student submitted a report on everything he’d heard and thought that ended the assignment. The Bureau quickly disabused him. The next day he was sent to look for the street mentioned in the resolution to see if it indeed needed paving, or even existed.

The street was even more difficult for him to find than City Hall, but he eventually succeeded, reporting that the street had never been paved before.

However the assignment continued, the next task being a trip to the city clerk’s office to search the records on the street. There the student discovered that the street had been “paved” — and paid for– every year for the past 25 years! With this evidence of chicanery in hand, the Bureau made sure that the street was finally paved for real and the student could finally put that assignment to rest.


One of the bureau staff rooms where students worked alongside full-time staff

The Bureau aimed to build an amiable atmosphere between its staff and the students since they spent long periods of time working together. With this view in mind, various bonding events were staged.

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Announcement of a joint event between the Training School and the Bureau

A more formal mechanism for interaction and socialization was the creation of a social club whose members went to the theater, played games, and went on various outings together.

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The Training Schools also issued its own newsletter, although it appears to have been relatively short lived. Searching for an appropriate motto for their new institution, one of the students suggested the following ditty:

“A wise old owl lived in an oak

And the more he saw the less he spoke

While the less he spoke the more he heard

Why can’t we all be like that bird?”


The publication contained informational pieces mixed with humor,  a sampling of which may be found below:

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Naturally the school attracted a high caliber of students many of whom went on to be leaders in their fields. Luther Gulick, who spent a better part of the century working at the Bureau and later the Institute of Public Administration, started out as a humble student at the school in 1916 while attending Columbia University (some institutions of higher education began giving academic credit to students to attended the Training School).

Another notable graduate was Robert Moses who, like many other students, ended up working in the Bureau itself after finishing up his training.

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Robert Moses and of some of the other Training School graduates

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Mention of Robert Moses in the Training School newsletter


Letter from another Training School graduate who became a Mayor

By the 1920s, various universities had began to develop their own public administration systems and with the attention of the Bureau starting to concentrate more and more on national issues, the school was transferred to Syracuse University, becoming the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

And this brings the tale full circle: in 2010, the City University of New York appointed a new president of Baruch — Mitchel B. Wallerstein, then dean of the Maxwell School!

3 thoughts on “The Training School for Public Service

  1. My appreciations to your well documented (and well photographed!) article

    It is interesting to know that the great Luther Gullick was also a student of this institute! This also suggest that training in public services, should not be confined only to the career bureaucrats but should include those who are pursuing this knowledge for academic curiosity or poetic pleasure.

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