Longtime public policy executive, SPA educator receives Centennial Professorship Award

By

Mark J. Scarp

Geoffrey Gonsher has no doubt collected his fair share of accolades during a public-sector career that has spanned more than five decades serving four Arizona governors and several Phoenix mayors. But a recent teaching award, granted at the urging of his ASU public policy students, may be among his most treasured.

Gonsher is the recipient of a 2021 Centennial Professorship Award from the Associated Students of Arizona State University (ASASU). He said it is a greater honor than most because it comes from “the people whom I serve, my students.”

Students wrote letters in support of his nomination for the award, he said.

“I’m a teaching professor,” said Gonsher, who is retiring from ASU in May after 10 years as a professor of practice in the School of Public Affairs. “(Receiving the award) means I have successfully achieved my mission in terms of helping our students.”

Gonsher said his approach to teaching emphasizes practice-related issues over theoretical or philosophical ones, because the study of public policy focuses so much on current events and headlines.

Throughout his time in government service, he said, no elected official asked him theoretical questions. “Nobody, but nobody, no mayor, no governor, has said to me, ‘Geoffrey, what is the theory of public policy?’ It’s not applicable to the practitioner’s world. It’s what works best for the community.”

He said he wants students to express their own thoughts, opinions and offer their own solutions, rather than repeat other people's theories and philosophies.  

“I want my students to think independently, as they are required to do in public policy,” said Gonsher, who added public policy is a field where there are no right or wrong answers because it is “an ever-evolving, fluid discipline.”

Gonsher said he approaches students as individuals. Every student has a different story to tell because they are of different genders, orientations, races and cultures. Students also learn differently in how they read, remember things and express themselves. Professors planning curriculums need to consider that many aspects of their students’ lives affect those learning abilities, he said.

“Many of them are employed. They have families to support. They have family and health issues. The way they view the world is different,” Gonsher said. “And we have to recognize that they don’t learn the same way. If a student isn’t responding to a particular teaching mode, then we have to identify that and do something to fix it, to help that student get through college.”

Gonsher’s final class lecture, titled, “Moving On,” offered insights about what should go into a decision to continue to the next opportunity in public service. It also announced his retirement.

“I have had a wonderful career in government, contributing to the professional development of public policy in a multi-layered way. I knew when I was in high school that I wanted to work in public service and I have done everything I set out to do,” he told students. “I take pride in knowing I have always moved on in my professional life when I decided it was the best time to do so. Moving from agency to agency and jurisdiction to jurisdiction was usually my decision to make.”

He bid his students farewell, saying, “All my students have been wonderful. You are inquisitive, motivated and responsible. I look forward to following your careers in the years ahead and I thank each of you for everything you have given me. I have faith that your generation is going to repair the world.”

Gonsher closed by saying that he was happy in the knowledge that at the next stage of his life it will be “on my own terms and timetable. And most importantly, I can still write a darn good public policy paper.”

Gonsher is the second educator from the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions to receive the award since 2012. Watts College Vice Dean Cynthia Lietz of the School of Social Work received it that year.

ASASU first bestowed the award, given annually to three faculty members, in 1984, naming it for the at-the-time upcoming centennial celebration of ASU’s founding in 1885.

Each award includes two grants of $5,000. The first is to go to a project that benefits students and the second is given to the honored professor, personally. Gonsher said he will combine the two amounts to help fund an existing scholarship supported by his family providing student internships in the offices of state and federal elected officials.

The other 2021 Centennial Professorship Award recipients are Michael Ostling of Barrett, the Honors College; and Susanne Pfeifer of the School of Life Sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Mark J. Scarp is media relations officer for the ASU Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.