MPA ALUMNI PROFILES
Barbara Dwyer Gunn
President and CEO
SEEDCO (Structured Employment and Economic Development Corporation)
New York, NY
At the time of this profile was created in 2008, Barbara Gunn was Senior Vice President for Operations and Government Relations at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, NY. She has since moved to Structured Employment and Economic Development Corporation, or Seedco, a New York charity that works nationwide to help low-income people move toward steady employment and communities become more stable economically.
Barbara Gunn oversees operations at one of the largest natural history museums in the world, managing a huge budget and directing all construction, including reconstruction of the renowned Hayden Planetarium. She established the museum's government relations and human relations offices, and has developed publicly funded education programs including an after-school program, a moveable museum, and science programs for middle school students.
She has had essentially only two employers since graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill's MPA program. For 11 years, Gunn worked in an administration tasked with rescuing New York City from near bankruptcy. She moved through and helped to transform a number of the city's agencies, including the social services division of the Mayor's Office of Operations and the Department of Parks and Recreation. She was the first female deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, responsible for a $265 million annual budget and a staff of 6,500.
Gunn says the MPA program prepared her well for this work. "Because the city was obligated to set up performance measurements for all of its agencies when Mayor Koch took office, my MPA experience in government relations and evaluation research was hugely important."
She thrived in the complexity of a large municipal government and with the opportunity to implement change. "In the MPA program, I discovered that I was fascinated by the interactions between levels of government and by how each was affected by changes on other levels," Gunn says. "In New York City, the mayor's office was asking the same questions I had been encouraged to ask in the MPA program: How do you achieve change as quickly and effectively as possible, bringing everyone along in the process? In Chapel Hill, we were always supposed to think and question and debate every issue."
When Gunn joined the museum as vice president for finance, it was an organization on the brink of major change, with its first full-time president and a new upper level management structure. "Through my work in so many city agencies, I had developed the capacity to look at an organization, assess its needs, and plan strategically to move forward," she says. She established the museum's first expense and capital budgets, computerized their financial systems, and established a government relations office which has raised millions in city, state and federal funding.
The transition from city government to a nonprofit organization involved a change in pace that Gunn had first learned about in the MPA program. "In government, things move pretty quickly all the time. At the nonprofit museum, I had to learn how to slow down a bit, become more thoughtful, and incorporate more people in the decision-making process." She says, "The MPA experience was helpful, as it is structured so that you work in a team the whole time you're there. You end up knowing the kinds of work styles you work best with, and how to adapt to those you don't."
Barbara Gunn says the MPA program provided an invaluable foundation for her work in New York. "The size of the program allows for a lot of learning among students and interaction with the professors. They encourage the kind of questioning you would want to have the capacity and freedom to explore," she says. "In addition, the professors take a personal interest in the success of their students and the directions they are pursuing. In making decisions about courses I would take, I was told, ‘trust your instincts.' The way the professors taught and advised us was very empowering."