L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs

L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs



Celebrating a career of public service: Laurin L. Henry, Ph.D., professor emeritus, approaches 102nd birthday

By Rachel Zeeve

As Laurin L. Henry, Ph.D., professor emeritus and National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) fellow, approaches his 102nd birthday on May 23rd, the Wilder School and NASPAA proudly meet with him to reflect on his renowned career marked by a tireless commitment to public service and community advancement.

From his time with the Brookings Institution as a research associate to his years as a consultant to government agencies including the GAO and NASA, Henry has demonstrated his vast expertise in a range of professional endeavors. After teaching government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, he became professor and first dean of VCU’s School of Community Services — which later became the Wilder School in 2013 — in 1978.

Making and recording history

Henry served as president of the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) from 1971 to 1972. “You paved the way for the Wilder School and its place in the community, and you've been most generous in your support of our Ph.D. students,” Dean Susan Gooden told Henry. “We also greatly appreciate your service with NASPAA in recording its history, and we owe you a lot.”

In 1986, Henry was tasked with documenting the extensive background of the organization. This undertaking, entitled, “Education for Public Service: The Growth of University Study of Public Administration and Public Affairs and the Origins and founding of the National Association of Schools Of Public Affairs and Administration,” was published in December of 2015. In its foreword, Henry emphasizes the critical importance of the work. “It seemed to me that here was a piece of the generally neglected subject of public administration history that ought to be saved, and if I didn’t write it, who else would?”

During the visit, Henry described the rise of NASPAA and its fellows program. “We got a million-dollar grant from the Ford Foundation and awarded something like eight or 10 minority fellowships at NASPAA schools,” he said. “As I remember the process, NASPAA awarded the fellowships to four or five of the principal NASPAA schools along with individual fellowships, which supported their graduate education. That was the first period in which we hoped to attract people to NASPAA on the basis of service. ”

According to Henry, the program “put NASPAA on the map in the university world.” Today, NASPAA is the leading global accreditor of graduate degree programs in public administration, public policy, public affairs and related spheres.

Wilder School Dean Susan T. Gooden and Dr. Laurin Henry review a new book, “Racial Equity, COVID-19, and Public Policy: The Triple Pandemic.”

A lasting legacy promoting civil rights and equity

The Wilder School boasts the oldest MPA program in the state, and Henry is responsible for this incredible achievement. “John J. Salley, the dean of graduate studies, was in charge of developing new graduate programs,” said Henry. “He invited me to come over to VCU and discuss the idea of a graduate program in public administration. My advice to Salley was that there's got to be a good strong public administration program in the state capital.”

Henry vividly recalled the dynamic political climate of Richmond at the time. “It was obviously largely the old white establishment in charge of the annexation of the south side into the city for clearly racially motivated reasons in the recent past,” he said. “Agitation for equal rights was relatively quiet during the time I was dean at VCU, which was in ’78 and the early eighties. Equal rights issues were being pretty much fought out of the state level. VCU was clearly interested in expanding its clientele and bringing in a lot of these black kids from the city, first generation families and all that. So at the university, we regarded ourselves as being in the vanguard of change in Richmond at that time.”

Henry’s dedication to building learning opportunities for future generations is further exemplified by his recent work with VCU libraries. “I've been in the process of tidying up my life, and  I had an accumulation of professional papers which I hated to throw away,” said Henry. “I thought they might be of some interest someday. The library said they would be happy to archive them.”

His prolific body of work, which is centered on presidential transitions, is included in the Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy presidential libraries. His contributions represent an invaluable resource to the VCU community. 

Henry’s influence continues to have a ripple effect throughout the Wilder School and beyond. “Dr. Henry is responsible for my going down the dock of teaching at VCU. He hired me in 1986,” said Blue Wooldridge, Ph.D., distinguished career professor and professor emeritus. 

As Dr. Henry and Dean Gooden reminisced about the Wilder School, they discussed its signature Excellence in Virginia Government Awards (EVGA) event. “It is a point of pride for the Wilder School because both Democrats and Republicans are all celebrating good government and public service,” said Gooden. 

Henry reflected on the posthumous recognition of John Moeser, Ph.D., who was honored with the Hill-Robinson Expansion of Freedom Award at EVGA. Having worked closely with Moeser — a founding member of the Urban and Regional Studies and Planning program at the Wilder School  — Henry was pleased to hear about the award. “Moeser was a really nice guy and one of the better faculty members of my time,” he said.

As Henry looks to the future, he views young people as agents of change in the public sector. “If there's any idealism left in high school students, I'd say that this is a field which needs them,” he said. 

“Public service is a great activity with its own intrinsic rewards, and there are enough varied forms of public service you can be a scientific type, an engineering type or a managerial type. If you go to the right kind of school, you will also get a grasp of what the world is about in terms of society and politics, which I think ought to be fundamental to graduate programs and public administration. It's to grasp the fundamentals of society, the nature of politics and the nature of democracy.”