With a 26-year career in city government and a decade of teaching at Florida Gulf Coast University, Robert Lee calls himself a “pracademic,” or a practitioner-turned-academic. As an inaugural public administration faculty member, Lee has earned accolades and admiration while bridging theory with practice and his relevant work experience.
But for Lee, it’s not about awards, it’s about impact.
“I think what students appreciate – I know I did in grad school – is the blending of theory and practice,” Lee says about one of his approaches to teaching public administration. “If you have someone who’s been in the field, students are more responsive to it.”
Lee knows about being in the field. He served as city manager for Naples and Gulfport, Florida, city administrator in Lauderhill, Florida, and borough manager in Bellevue, Pennsylvania.
“Many of our students already work in government and nonprofits, so we’re also able to use their agencies as examples as to why a theory makes sense or doesn’t,” Lee says. Like them, he too worked in government as a student: as the Chamber of Commerce manager in East Liberty, Pennsylvania, while studying at the University of Pittsburgh.
In the classroom, Lee emphasizes the importance of building meaningful relationships, a lesson that resonates with his students. In a heartwarming gesture of gratitude for his mentorship and help in her career as a project manager with Charlotte County Public Works Engineering, Lindsey Johnson (‘21, master of public administration) nominated her former professor for the prestigious Steven B. Sweeney Academic Award—an honor bestowed by the International City and County Management Association, the largest public management association in the world. Lee won last year.
Johnson says the honor was all hers. She sees Lee as someone who “goes above and beyond” for his students. “He’s known for being willing to help and for caring about his students. I know my county administrators think highly of him, too.”
Lee encourages his students to consider the importance of respect, collaboration and honesty in their future roles as public administrators. He stresses listening to and understanding the needs and perspectives of diverse stakeholders, which is crucial to building trust and achieving purposeful results.
“Respect people, do a fair day’s work and tell the truth. Those are some fundamental basics,” Lee says.
These ideas have profoundly impacted Lee’s students, many of whom credit his mentorship with helping them succeed in their own public administration careers.
Elijaquan Lee (‘17, bachelor’s in communication and ‘19, master of public administration) is a planner for Fort Myers Beach. As the FGCU International City and County Management Association student chapter past president, he credits the networking opportunities as vital to his current success.
“Dr. Lee has been a mentor. I told him I wanted to be a city or county manager one day. He prepped me for making sure I have the necessary skills and personality to talk to staff and the public.”
As a student, Elijaquan Lee attended a Florida City and County Management Association conference where he met the Fort Myers Beach town manager who would later offer him his first full-time job after completing his master’s.
“I wouldn’t have gotten there without Dr. Lee’s guidance,” he says.
Robert Lee’s mentorship also helped Cape Coral native John “JC” Meyer (‘08, bachelor’s in criminal justice, and ‘19, master of public administration) find career success. Meyer graduated in 2008 as the recession hit, taking his plans for his criminal justice degree with it. He found a job as a network engineer for a private company but felt it lacked the fulfillment he knew he would find in a public service career.
In 2012, he left the private sector for Lee County Public Safety, managing technology for countywide EMS, fire and 911 dispatch operations.
“Bringing my experience to Lee County, where I live, where my family lives, where all my friends live, and bringing that to public safety, to 911, where they’re saving lives? There’s nothing better,” Meyer says.
A few years later, his supervisor suggested he get a master’s degree. Focused on succession planning, she felt an MPA would position him with the right skill set and knowledge to grow and manage public safety technology.
According to professor Lee, the MPA program interests local government practitioners like those Meyer works with because FGCU’s program offers a graduate certificate in local government management.
“No other school in Florida offers such a program, and there are very few like it anywhere in the U.S.,” he says.
Meyer credits Lee with helping build the foundation for him to be the leader he’s become within local government through courses in public budgeting and ethics. Meyer is now the manager of network and security with Lee County. “Dr. Lee is someone I look up to and respect. I try to emulate him, and I’ll even ask myself, what would Dr. Lee do here?”
“He’s so humble; he would never want to hear that,” Meyer adds, his voice breaking.
Lee’s emphasis on building relationships is a simple but powerful reminder of human connection’s fundamental role in effective governance. As Lee put it: “Public administration is not just about managing resources; it’s about managing relationships.”
This spring, @fgcu welcomed 20 #Fulbright Teachers from 19 countries. They visited local schools including @DunbarHighFL, where Principal Burnside said, “When it comes down to it, the most important element of learning is learning about people.”— Fulbright Teacher Exchanges (@FulbrightTeach) April 18, 2023
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