Department of Political Science

Faculty Spotlight: Joe Vonasek, Political Science

Published on Nov 28, 2016

Joseph Vonasek, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, he is also a donor. He is funding an endowed scholarship for future generations of students in the Public Administration Program. While there are many faculty who donate to the university, we wanted to find out more about why Vonasek felt it was important to do so. In our interview below, Vonasek talks about the foundations of a good life, and how leaving a legacy of education and opportunity is one of the greatest gifts one can bestow.


I was a career public administrator serving local and state governments for over 25 years. Some of my positions included senior staff roles, local government executive, and cost and policy consultant. I was awarded a PhD from the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy, a part of Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. Prior to seeking my doctorate, I was a speaker at a number of national and international professional conferences and worked in other professions. Included among them are experiences as an employee relations manager for a division of a major retail corporation, a professional aviator, and a flight and ground school instructor. My early papers (dealing with full-cost analysis applied in a fund accounting environment) are published in the proceedings of the USEPA’s 1st US Conference on Municipal Solid Waste Management (1990) and the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials’ 1993 National Forum. I am the second child of a couple of small business owner/operators who left Chicago after WWII in order to try and create a better life for their family. My family was not wealthy in a monetary sense. We never wanted for the necessities of life, but the experiences from growing up on the shores of Florida’s Gold Coast in the 50’s and 60’s have never left me.

Other valuable characteristics that I developed as a growing young man also came from my parents. They encouraged me to be independent, to experience as much of life as I could, and to always try to live my dreams.

About the only thing my parents ever made me do was to get an education (Thanks, Mom & Dad!). I was encouraged to work and earn money for the things I wanted in life. In addition to the yard work and paper routes, which were typical jobs for a young boy at that time, I worked a number of different jobs and earned money to buy my first car and fulfill my other wants.

When I left public service in 2004, I quickly came to the realization that I didn’t like retirement. I gave some thought about what I wanted to do and engaged in deep self-evaluation. There were a number of avenues that I could have followed but decided that I wanted to teach the next generation of public organizational leaders what I’d learned about public budgeting finance during my career. To some extent, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to follow Maslow’s hierarchy and “self-actualize.”

I didn’t really know I was going to come to Auburn. I just knew what I wanted to do and was seeking to begin the road towards completing my intentions. When I arrived, I found that I’d been allowed by fate to be sent to a stunningly attractive campus; to me it was rather like working in a national caliber country club. The faculty were all very accepting of me (even though I’d come here as a “visiting assistant”), and I felt that the work I was doing was actually preparing MPA students for their futures. My particular talents are somewhat in demand in academic programs, and I could probably have gone elsewhere. I wanted to stay and was fortunate to be selected for a tenure track position.


Recently I was faced with being told to “get my affairs in order.” I had no will and, although I was married for about seven years, I have no successors. I had to make decisions very quickly and decided that, since what I’d originally wanted to do was help future generations find their career “niche,” that I could continue that activity in perpetuity by endowing a scholarship. I have been fortunate in life to have acquired the resources to do so and can’t think of any greater outcome than assisting others to achieve their dreams with assets I will no longer require. Additionally, in the three years at Auburn, I’d been happier and felt that my life was more fulfilled than at any other time in my previous 20 years.

I thought it most appropriate to award future students with assistance that comes straight from Lily Hardy Hammond’s “paying it forward” playbook. I was the beneficiary of chance by being born to my parents, a couple of hard-working, blue collar, Depression-era kids from Chicago who migrated to Florida. They endowed me with a desire to succeed and the basic skills and tools to do so. The scholarship I’m funding will also assist in making that possible for its recipients. I can only hope that it may go on fulfilling my original objective of sending MPAs out into their futures better prepared to be public administrators.

Some are not fortunate enough to have the resources and others have obligations to their families. However, I would urge those who have the resources, or no family obligations, to plan on doing it. They can endow a scholarship and have the possibility of lasting much longer than their memory will in any other venue. My mother once noted to me about herself, “When you’re gone, and my grandchildren are gone, who’s going to remember me?” Well, I’ve answered that question about myself. I can rest with the knowledge that I’ve started something that will enable others to serve our nation’s citizens and to be successful themselves. What better monument could there possibly be than one that keeps your name on people’s lips every year?

I’m not happy with the state of my present physical condition. I’ve always been active and kept myself (nominally) physically fit. Undergoing enforced bedrest for two months is not conducive to retaining either body strength or endurance. I’m slowly regaining them, but I struggle with my energy levels (largely due to the dialysis I undergo three times a week). I’ve faced illness and injury previously in my life, but I was much younger and my body overcame their stresses upon it much quicker. Some would say that my life has been very unlucky. I think I’ve been the luckiest person in the world. Now, however, I just need to take it one day at time and appreciate having the opportunity that’s been given to me to continue my quest at Auburn. War Eagle!

Interview conducted by Vicky Santos, director, external affairs in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University.