The Hobby Center for Public Policy long has been known for political polling and data-driven studies of public policy. So when the Hobby School of Public Affairs was launched in the fall of 2016, enveloping the Hobby Center but also offering interdisciplinary graduate degrees, it had to define its mission.
It will reflect Houston, said former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, for whom the school is named.
Not just Houston, although the school’s work is heavily tilted toward public issues at play in Houston and in Texas. All public affairs schools necessarily offer curriculums that span the breadth of the subject, Hobby acknowledged, and the school is engaged in a wide range of projects.
Equally important, Hobby said, is the way in which the mission is approached.
“The school is built around Gov. Hobby’s belief in data-driven research emphasizing rigorous quantitative analysis,” said Jim Granato, professor of political science and executive director of the Hobby School. “While researchers with the school are working on a number of public policy issues, from voter ID to energy, our approach is always the same—to listen to what the data tells us.”
Equal to the data, he said, is the emphasis on ethics. “The ethics of the research process is inseparable from technique. There must be transparency to how the analysis and data collection were conducted and an assurance that others have the opportunity to replicate the results.”
That approach is an extension of Hobby’s wide interests and pragmatic view of public affairs, reflected in the title of his 2010 book, “How Things Really Work: Lessons From a Life in Politics.”
Hobby—now the elder statesman of a family known in Texas for its long line of public service—is the son of William P. Hobby, former publisher of the Houston Post, Texas’ 27th governor and the namesake of one of Houston’s major airports, and Oveta Culp Hobby, who served as the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, first commanding officer of the Women’s Army Corps and as chair of the board of the Houston Post.
Hobby himself served as Texas lieutenant governor from 1973 to 1991, longer than anyone else elected to that position. His career also includes stints as a naval officer, professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin and as chancellor of the University of Houston System from 1995-1997, among a raft of other appointments. Less well known is his more than decade-long affiliation with the University of Michigan’s Summer Program in data and statistics.
And at 84, he continues to keep an eye on the school that bears his name, maintaining a relationship that has steadily grown since the UH Center for Public Policy was founded in 1981; it was renamed the Hobby Center for Public Policy in 2010. His support has ranged from providing the lead gift for the creation of the Hobby School to his instrumental role in building support among public officials across the state.
The Hobby School conducted several polls before the November 2016 election, correctly reporting that Democrat Hillary Clinton held a sizeable lead over Republican Donald Trump in Harris County but that Trump would carry the state. A post-election survey in Harris County measured the impact of voter education programs. Other topics on the Hobby School plate include the Texas voter ID law and the Texas Lottery.
With every project, the focus is on the process in order to ensure the results are meaningful.
“In my experience, public policy schools often have little impact on public policy,” said Paul Hobby, a businessman and son of Bill Hobby. “Like well-intentioned political candidates, they often don’t focus on unintended consequences that manifest in practical application.”
He suggests an approach of auditing public policy after it has taken effect in order to determine the true impact, rather than predicting the expected impact, could change that.
“But it’s not my school. It’s his,” the younger Hobby said, gesturing at his father.
“It’s not my school,” the elder Hobby responded. “It’s Houston’s school.”