Many professors hope to put their unique stamp on their school, but few get to develop graduate programs in government and public policy from the ground up like Dr. Mary Hilderbrand, senior lecturer and distinguished practitioner in residence at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. During a career that has taken her from Paris to Cartagena to Bangkok, Dr. Hilderbrand has had a hand in developing public policy and administration programs around the world.
“One of the main things I’ve done in my career is work with institutions in developing countries to develop schools of public policy,” said Hilderbrand. “Indonesia was just the most recent experience, but helping to develop schools in Mexico and Bolivia were also major experiences, and they are the ones I would say are the most significant.”
While working for the Harvard Institute for International Development, Hilderbrand worked with Catholic University of Bolivia to develop a master’s program in public policy and administration. Over the course of several years and multiple trips to the country, Hilderbrand worked with Bolivian colleagues to develop the program that has since grown into a school within the university that offers both undergraduate and graduate courses in business administration and public policy.
“The School has developed very strong credibility as an excellent school and has educated people who are in positions of responsibility in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors,” said Hilderbrand. “Even now when there is a government that is not very supportive, the program is still working; and people are going into the government and making a difference.”
Developing graduate programs in public policy and administration stems from a belief in the value of educating those pursuing careers in the public sector.
“I’m in the Department of Public Service and Administration because I am interested in the management side and the administration side—what government does and how to make it work better,” said Hilderbrand. “Those are the topics of both of my classes. In my comparative public administration class, the perspective is more from the managers and how they can be more effective. The governance reform class is more from a higher-level perspective of how do you make government as a whole work better and what are the challenges?”
In addition to her two classes, Hilderbrand is supervising a student capstone research project studying American and German approaches to data privacy. As a result of the study, the student researchers hope to develop recommendations that will promote better relations and collaboration between the US and Germany on this issue. The research is being conducted for the Public Sector-Europe division of Computer Sciences Corporation.
For Hilderbrand, an interest in international development began at an early age.
“I was always interested in things international,” said Hilderbrand. “In undergraduate and graduate school, I studied political science and international relations. I was always interested in the regions of the world we call developing countries—although that term doesn’t fit very well. I just always found both the cultural experience of going to those countries and seeing how things worked to be things that were especially interesting.”
Hilderbrand received both her master’s degree and PhD from Harvard University and focused her doctoral dissertation on the politics of African economic adjustment in the 1980s. Soon after graduating, she began working at the Harvard Institute for International Development. While her work for nearly fifteen years focused primarily on Latin America, she also did some work related to Asia and Africa.
Hilderbrand’s research interests focus on the politics of economic reform, institutional capacity, development assistance, reform of the state, and the role of politics and governance in development. In addition, she has particular interests in basic services delivery for poor communities, community health worker programs, and linkages between research and knowledge and public policy. During her career, she has taught at a number of prominent institutions, including the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Sciences Po in Paris.
When reflecting on her long career in international development and academia, Hilderbrand says it’s the similarities, rather than the differences, between the US and the countries she has worked in that surprise her.
“I am constantly surprised,” said Hilderbrand. “As I think about my work in Latin America, what surprised me when I first went was how sophisticated and developed the cities are and how the people who are the elite—whether in academia or government or the private sector—have experiences and ways of looking at things that are not very different from ours. Of course, many people live very different lives; but many of the challenges faced in public service and public affairs are widely shared. I think that we as Americans often have these visions of ‘the developing world’ as poor countries where nothing is happening, but that’s just not how it is at all. In working in countries around the world, I have had the privilege of working with—and have been impressed by—highly trained and committed people who work in public service, civil society organizations, and academia and are finding innovative ways to meet public policy challenges in their own contexts. We tend to think in terms of their learning from us, but we need to learn from them, as well.”