A Career In Public Service: Brad Townsend, M.P.A. '87, Celebrates the 60th Anniversary of NIU's Master of Public Administration Program

By Tony Scott

Bradford J. Townsend is a graduate of NIU's M.P.A. program, now celebrating its 60th year.

Brad Townsend, M.P.A. ’87, has retired from full-time work after decades of service in the public and private sectors, but he said he still benefits from his time studying in NIU's Master of Public Administration program, which celebrates its 60th anniversary during the 2023-2024 school year.

“I still benefit from the good government foundation of the Master of Public Administration program and the wonderful network of colleagues,” he said. “The wide range of courses in organizational analysis, statistics, employee relations, finance, public policy, planning, and management allowed me to explore many facets of public administration. The professors were insightful in the classroom and were available and willing to talk one-on-one with me. The best part is that all classwork and other activities were built on the bedrock of public service. Everyone reinforced the notion of giving your time and talents to a community or organization.”

A native of Springfield, Illinois, Townsend spent part of his childhood in Indianapolis, attending elementary school in the shadow of the Indy 500 racetrack. In high school, his family moved back to Springfield. 

“The moves partly related to the family optical business,” he said. “My father was one of the original salesmen to offer contact lenses to doctors for their patients. My mother took care of my two brothers and me at home during our younger years. Then, she studied computer technology and became a lead operator for State of Illinois benefit programs.”

Townsend recalls having interests related to politics and service at a young age.

“I had many discussions with my immediate family and grandparents related to politics and government service,” he said. “I became an amateur scholar of Lincoln, studied journalism in community college, and worked as a television/radio broadcaster. These interests drew me to public affairs.”

Townsend attended Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield and then earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Western Illinois University in 1977. 

In the years after his graduation from Western, Townsend would meet and marry his wife, Debbie, and the couple would have three children – daughters Beth and Katie and son John.

“We moved back and forth between central and northern Illinois in the early years based upon my job situation,” he said. “Our first move north was to Boone County after I was hired to be county administrator. I decided to return to college for a master’s degree."

After doing some research, Townsend decided on NIU’s M.P.A. program in 1984. He worked full-time while attending classes in DeKalb and other nearby sites.

Director Jim Banovetz, his staff, and faculty were very impressive,” he said. “I applied, completed the entrance exam, and was on my way.” 

Townsend recalled several faculty members who helped guide him and instilled values that are important to those working in public service. 

“Professor Banovetz told me, ‘Be politically savvy, but not act politically on the job,’” he said. “Those words served me well during my career as a city and village manager. They are consistent with the high ethical tenants of the International City/County Management Association and its Illinois chapter. Dr. J. Dixon Esseks had a gift for prompting me to focus my mind on a task systematically; my first cost-benefit analysis project was on his watch. Mathematics never came easy to me, but somehow Professor Gordon Hilton helped me develop statistical skills that I have successfully used as a public administrator and public finance advisor. Dr. Irene Rubin strengthened my critical thinking with her emphasis on researching the details of a situation so you can better understand the big picture over time. Department office manager June Kubasiak helped me track student deadlines; this was a good lesson in multitasking. She also showed me the value of networking with fellow students.”

He also had a lot of support from his family as he made his way through the program. 

“I will never forget drafting my starred paper in the kitchen of our duplex,” he said. “My wife was typing it in the bedroom. Our daughter Beth, age five, happily ran back and forth to deliver each sheet!”

Following his M.P.A. graduation, Townsend went on to serve in a number of jobs and positions. He was a city and village manager, city director and project director for seven Illinois communities. He also led numerous multi-million-dollar capital projects, including a hotel and convention center, an interstate highway interchange, a new courthouse complex, a regional biking/walking bridge, and changes to pedestrian and vehicle traffic movements at the Old State Capitol.

He served on a number of community assessment teams for the Center for Governmental Studies at NIU to guide municipal leaders on operations and development. He worked as a public finance advisor, serving municipalities, counties, townships and school districts, helping more than 100 clients issue millions of dollars in bond issues for capital projects and cost savings. 

Townsend has also volunteered with regional councils of government and professional association committees. He authored a variety of published articles featured in ICMA PM Magazine and chapters in ICMA textbooks. He mentored people new to the public administration profession and lectured on public finances at NIU. Even in retirement, Townsend continues to be involved as a volunteer senior advisor to members of ICMA and ILCMA plus community leaders. 

Townsend has also been an active alumnus and gives back to NIU in a variety of ways.

“I had the great opportunity to do this as a member of the 40th and 50th NIU M.P.A. anniversary committees, member of the alumni advisory board, chairman of the M.P.A. fundraising/social golf committee, being at the annual dinners during the ICMA conference, and as an NIU football game spectator,” he said.

For those considering a Master of Public Administration degree from NIU, Townsend said the program is a great pathway to a career in which one can truly make a positive difference.

“You can use the degree to begin a professional career or to enhance a career already underway,” he said. “Take advantage of every moment to learn, contribute, and actively experience what comes your way. Sooner or later, everything will serve you well when dealing with people, a project, a service program, or even a crisis.

This plays into what Abraham Lincoln said about work and service: ‘Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.’”