The Mutchnik Family recently made a generous contribution to the Fels Institute of Government to provide scholarships for students with public sector aspirations. Meghan Pierce, MPA ’18, sat down with Nicole Goldner Mutchnik, MPA ‘92, to discuss her Fels experience and belief in public service.
Please describe your Fels experience. How did Fels impact your understanding of public service, while at school and today?
Landing in Philadelphia was the perfect spot for me, having spent a short lifetime in only one sprawling city, Los Angeles. Philly was a city you could get your hands around, the perfect laboratory for a public service wonk. It embodied large and small urban challenges, with a devoted cadre of Philadelphia elders, preservationists and civic entrepreneurs. Every person I met was different from those I had known. Every discussion was fascinating, and the City was a historic chestnut to crack.
At Fels, I was planted among the most talented classmates, each budding with unique interests: architects, urban planners, youth service founders, political junkies, finance pros, computer whizzes; everyone was bright and brought a perspective. Living in a creaky historic bedroom on Woodland Terrace behind the SEPTA station, overlooking a cemetery, I felt like a true ivory tower scholar, typing out endless papers on my new little Apple cube.
My professors were the best part of my Fels experience, and I attended many lectures with impressive speakers; one I’ll always remember was a speech writer for President Reagan. Finally, I still use my public management, budgeting, and spreadsheet skills every day!
Do you have a favorite class or memory from your time here?
I studied under a previous director of Fels, Dr. Spady. Dr. Spady is a legend. How fortunate to study under a man whose most sincere desire was to leverage his own knowledge, experience and even failures to bolster the next generation of public servants. He was brilliant, of course, and revered our democracy, its grandeur and eternal promise, but also its fragility, viciousness, and unrelenting needs. He passionately wanted us to learn from history, from academics, and from the success and flaws of genuine practitioners. He brought the case study model to government service, both in books and in person. We had the best times gathered around the beautiful dining table for Wednesday evening dinners to welcome visiting leaders, hear their stories, and pepper them with questions. It was very practical and built great camaraderie.
Your generous gift to Fels will support the next generation of public sector leaders. Why did you feel this was a worthy investment?
“There are only saints and knaves in government,” as Dr. Spady often said. My husband Allan and I fervently believe that serving democracy is as noble as medicine, science, and social work. Humanity is at stake. When government calls the very best and the brightest, as it does at Fels and very few other institutions, the course of history can pivot to the better.
I remember being admitted to Harvard and Columbia, but only Penn offered me scholarship assistance. That offer changed the course of my life, and I'm certain my gift to Fels 25 years later still doesn't cover the debt I owe to the School.
Do you have any advice for current Fels students?
Continue saying yes! You are working hard, and deferring much, but I promise it will be worthwhile. Please do a better job staying in touch with your classmates than I did. Reach back every chance you can; some of the finest achievements will come from connecting those above, beside and behind you. Connecting good people is eternally powerful.
Anything else you would like to add?
I especially wish to toast Penn, and recognize the stunning renaissance of the University and the City of Philadelphia. Perhaps as current students it is difficult to recognize, but the modern-day excellence of Penn is absolutely no accident or predicted trajectory! The City of Philadelphia and the University were once in decline, and it required the heroic leadership of Dr. Amy Gutman, the Trustees and other civic leaders with cinematic vision. Their combined heavy lifting created a University brimming with the greatness, energy, and promise we all enjoy today. These public leaders reinvented urban magnetism, and expanded a University to attract the best students and professors in the world. Uncommon people made this all possible. That is why we need Fels students!