Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy has named a former U.S. representative to the United Nations as distinguished visiting fellow in
public policy at Drexel. Retired Ambassador Joseph M. Torsella began his work at Drexel Oct. 1 and will remain in residence at the University until the end of the spring quarter in 2015. He will contribute to research undertaken by the center as well as share his knowledge, experiences and real world perspective on how public policy is created and executed.
The Center for Public Policy is a think tank within Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences. It conducts public-policy-oriented research and serves as a credible connection between faculty, who take part in that research, and relevant government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Torsella was chosen as the visiting fellow by the center and confirmed by the Office of the President because of his interest in both domestic and international policy, past service to Philadelphia and most recent service to the U.S. government, and his eagerness to engage and challenge students about policy, politics and international affairs.
“Ambassador Torsella not only brings a wealth of experience, but a natural inclination to share ideas, teach and learn,” Rosalind Remer, executive director of the Office of the President , wrote in an email. “His approachable demeanor will make him a great asset to the university community. Students will enjoy their interactions with him and the university community will benefit from the insights he will share in his lectures.”
Torsella began his public service to the Philadelphia region by serving as Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for policy and planning from January 1992 to September 1993, where he helped reduce the city’s budget deficit. He was then asked by former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell to become founding president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in 1997, an institution that would provide a nonpartisan education about the U.S. Constitution to the American public. The project was approved in 1988 but due to operating budget deficits and inadequate focus, the project still wasn’t completed in 1997.
Under Torsella’s leadership, the construction of the Constitution Center was completed in 2003, after he managed to raise $185 million in private and public funds. The center opened in 2003 and serves as an interactive museum, national town hall and civic education headquarters.
He went on to serve as chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Education, where he endeavored to address the rising costs of higher education and strengthened high school graduation requirements. In late 2010, he was nominated by President Barack Obama to service as U.S. representative to the United Nations for management and reform. During his time at the U.N., Torsella criticized the U.N., telling it to live up to its ideals and stop practices that were “relics of the 1950s.” He encouraged it to be more careful with taxpayer dollars and to live up to a higher standard in important practices such as peacekeeping. He focused on getting the U.N. to do more with less, to be much more of a transparent institution and to end some of the practices that discredit it. He managed to make significant advances in transparency, getting budget hearings that had formerly been closed to be webcast and getting the U.N. to publicly disclose its audits.
Torsella ended his role at the U.N. in early 2014 and spent some time with his family before deciding to join the Drexel community as a visiting fellow. He decided to come to Drexel because of its energy, dynamism and the large role it plays in Philadelphia’s civic life. He was particularly drawn by Drexel’s emphasis on practical experience displayed by its co-op program which he believes gives Drexel a real advantage and distinction and something he can greatly contribute to considering his wide ranging career in public service.
“I’m a big fan of Drexel as an institution and a big fan of President [John A. Fry], with whom I’ve crossed paths over the years,” Torsella wrote in an email. “I’m also a fan of the co-op program, which is something very distinctive and special. I’ve had a few Drexel student co-ops over the years and each one has been impressive. I’m hoping I can lend some practical insights to the public policy program [and] I’m also hoping Drexel students can do the same for me and give me some insight into the challenges and opportunities they are facing.”
Torsella intends to work with Andrew Bull, a master’s student studying public policy, to explore issues from some of his past careers in public service, such as access to higher education, high school graduation standards, the role of the U.S. in the U.N. system and transparency in government issues. He also intends to explore economic development and how immigration can be a positive force in economic growth.
In addition to research that will contribute to the mission of Drexel’s Center for Public Policy, Torsella will serve as guest lecturer for a few courses, hold regular office hours and be present on campus on Thursdays as well as deliver two lectures open to the University to appeal to a broad audience rather than just an academic one.
“Almost everything I do while at Drexel is intended to be of interest to a broad popular audience, not just to the academic community,” Torsella wrote. “That was one of the things that [President Fry and Interim Provost James Herbert]had in mind that I found most appealing: they wanted someone who would research and write for a broad audience. It was another way in which I saw Drexel as a very fresh and relevant institution which as I said was very appealing to me.”
The first lecture will be held late in the winter term and will focus on domestic policy issues and likely center on polarization and rising inequality. The second lecture will be held in late spring term and will be about the U.S. role at the U.N. and the U.N. as an institution, and a few remarks about the unfair treatment of Israel at the U.N.
Torsella’s residence at Drexel is an opportunity for students to gain a real world perspective of the challenges facing domestic and international policy makers and the general public to gain some insight into the issues within the structure of the world’s most powerful and imperfect institution, the U.N. Torsella’s standing and extensive government service aids increase Drexel’s credibility and role in Philadelphia’s civic life and will help attract other distinguished individuals in the coming years.