Johnson Institute: Preparing Leaders One Student at a Time

By Aileen St. Leger

For many years, the City of Pittsburgh was said to be suffering from “brain drain,” the phenomena caused by students receiving a rigorous education from one of Pittsburgh’s prestigious institutions, and then leaving the city in search of better economic opportunities in other regions, explained John Delano on a recent segment of the Sunday Business Page.

However, “one institution is fighting back by providing students at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) with a hands-on experience that helps them improve their leadership skills and credentials and make connections here for good jobs,” said Delano.

At GSPIA, the Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership provides students with professional training and experience to better prepare them for to be a leader in their career – no matter what position they may hold.  Dr. Kevin Kearns, Director of the Johnson Institute, visited The Sunday Business Page to discuss the benefits that the Institute can provide GSPIA students.

“The Johnson Institute’s mission is to improve the quality of leadership in public service,” said Kearns. Teaching is one tenet of that mission and accomplished in part through the Leadership Portfolio Program (LPP). “We provide a select, highly qualified group of students, who we believe have leadership potential, with a portfolio of leadership experiences.”  Some key aspects of the program are the placement of students on various nonprofit Boards of Directors, connecting the students with a mentor in the community, and providing additional workshops and seminars to hone leadership skills As a surprising result of this experience, Kearns is finding that the students see the various leadership opportunities available in Pittsburgh and end up staying in the area. The program is,  in a small way, helping to build Pittsburgh’s younger generation in the workforce.  

While the Institute’s mission with this program was not to solve the “brain drain” problem, the Institute’s efforts are contributing to the increase in adults living in the Pittsburgh area with at least a bachelor’s degree. According to a report published by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, since the turn of the 21st century, Pittsburgh has increased the number of adults living in the region with a bachelor’s degree by 148,000,  a 37 percent increase. One of those new residents is Marina Duane, MID ‘13, who joined Kearns on the program to speak about her experiences with the Johnson Institute and the Leadership Portfolio Program.  

Marina Duane is a Specialist in the Office of Data Analysis, Research, and Evaluation for Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services.  Originally from Ukraine, Duane described how she was first undecided on her preference on international or domestic policy, but her experiences in the LPP influenced her decision to stay in the region. “I joined Leadership Portfolio Program, and I would say that was instrumental and key in my decision to stay in Pittsburgh.”  The program allowed her to become familiar with the community, as well as to network with leaders in the nonprofit sector. While in the LPP, Duane served on the board of the Heritage Community Initiatives in Braddock. “I actually realized that there is a big need here and I wanted to stay and serve the most vulnerable,” said Duane.  She said, “I actually never thought I would end up working for local government…and programs like the Leadership Portfolio Program are really instrumental in keeping people like me here.”

The Leadership Portfolio Program accepts approximately 15 candidates each year to participate in the program. Almost 50%  of these students have settled in the region to pursue various leadership careers and opportunities after graduation.  Alumni of the program work with the City and County as well as in a variety of nonprofits and corporations in the area, as well as around the world. To watch the show, click here.


Graduate School of Public and International Affairs
3601 Wesley W. Posvar Hall, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15260