Three Harris School students interned at Funkhouser & Associates, gaining hands-on experience in municipal finance and soft skills.

“Scrappy” solutions to big fiscal problems. A client in the Cayman Islands. Work that was heavier on soft skills, more so than on quantitative analysis. At first glance, this might not sound like the classic Harris School of Public Policy internship.

But the recent internships for three MPP students at boutique consulting firm Funkhouser & Associates (F&A) were right in Harris’ wheelhouse, immersing the graduate students into the nitty-gritty of municipal finance, a public policy sphere in which Harris is expanding its footprint and one that’s attracting attention as a way for policymakers to quickly make an impact.

Justin Marlowe
Justin Marlowe

“In a world of ever-scarcer resources and endless citizen demands for services, policymakers have realized they can accomplish a lot more if they more effectively deploy the concepts and tools of municipal finance,” said Harris Research Professor Justin Marlowe. “For that to happen, public organizations need people who can understand what a policymaker wants to accomplish, and then translate those aspirations into the technical language of contemporary municipal finance. Harris prepares students to be those people.”

Mark Funkhouser, the president of F&A, former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, and a faculty member at Tulane University, sees that same trend.

“The pandemic and its after-effects—and the resulting huge infusion of federal money and the need to make sure that the money was spent well—have highlighted the importance of municipal finance,” Funkhouser said. “You can't take care of the people if you don't take care of the money. So, the world needs the money taken care of. Otherwise, things go to hell. And I think that message is coming through more.”

The message is increasingly resonating at the Harris School, which boasts some of the nation’s leading faculty experts and has launched a host of new initiatives for students in the public finance field. Harris is home to the University’s Center for Municipal Finance, led by Marlowe and dedicated to improving the quality of life in communities through better-informed decisions about public money. Another Harris Professor, Christopher Berry, now heads the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. And Harris recently wrapped its inaugural Harris Policy Innovation Challenge, which gave students the chance to propose real-world solutions to Chicago’s unfunded pension crisis, while also launching a student municipal finance organization, seeking to build on its partnerships with the National Federation of Municipal Analysts (NFMA) and national public finance firms and practitioners.

“The student organization is a key part of our success,” said Marlowe, who was the bridge linking Harris and Funkhouser thanks to a connection that dates back decades. “Our goal is to introduce Harris students to municipal finance sooner than later, and their fellow students do that better than anyone.”

Alex Mull-Dreyer
Alex Mull-Dreyer

Such resources, along with Harris’ signature curriculum, “put students in position to really dive deeper into the connection between government, finance, infrastructure, and policy,” said Alex Mull-Dreyer, MPP’24, who was one of the F&A public policy research associate interns. He, along with Marlowe and fellow F&A intern Maahir Vasi, MPP’24, stood up the Harris student organization. The third intern, Anna Weiss, MPP’24, was also active in the student organization, which is how she discovered the internship.

East Coast-based F&A’s consulting style emphasizes collaboration as it connects the dots between local government challenges and private sector solutions as well as connecting the dots among various local governments, said Veronika Zubo, an F&A consultant who helped oversee the three Harris interns. 

“That is part of what is unique in terms of the experience that we can provide to interns,” she added. “These different perspectives on resolving overarching problems are what you might get if you were at a think tank, but you wouldn't necessarily get the upfront exposure and ability to interact with local practitioners on the ground who are actually dealing with these types of things day to day.”

An added plus for the students, she said, is that municipal finance is an area where they can see that policy impact can tangibly be moved forward.

This was the first time that F&A worked with interns from Harris, Funkhouser said, with the students’ past internships and Harris skillset, as well as their eagerness to roll up their sleeves and get involved, impressing the firm. 

“They were not just completing tasks and meeting deadlines but contributing creatively in terms of research and bringing their own ideas and perspectives,” Zubo said.

Interns’ projects included conducting research on affordable housing scenarios in the Cayman Islands and collaborating on articles, newsletters, and playbooks on topics ranging from the Financial Data Transparency Act to migrant resettlement. 

Anna Weiss
Anna Weiss

“I didn't use any quant,” Weiss said with a laugh. “But I did apply what I learned in the many courses at Harris that teach you to take a lot of information and distill it down to the most succinct and practical and relevant parts, how to ask the right questions, and how to be a good listener and problem-solver. Those Harris skills were imperative to the work with Mayor Funkhouser.” 

The “softer” skills that students relied on during their internship, as opposed to traditional data analysis or econometrics, “are more difficult to develop, and developing them requires the careful attention and monitoring of a great internship supervisor like Funkhouser & Associates,” Marlowe said. 

“As a bonus for an employer like Mayor Funkhouser and his team,” Marlowe added, “our municipal finance students bring to the table some technical background on the more complicated and nuanced aspects of public finance, including topics like debt management and capital budgeting that were relevant to this project.”

Maahir Vasi
Maahir Vasi

As an example, Vasi explained that he was able to use his public finance background in a variety of ways, including working on a newsletter about debt management.

“One memorable opportunity I had,” he added, “was speaking to Kevin Bain,” Detroit’s director of strategy in the office of the CFO and Treasury.

“I got to talk directly to people in important roles, like Kevin, who shared their experiences, the challenges they face, the benefits they've seen from various programs, and then I could mold that information into a very applicable and more personalized solution for them,” he said. “That was very interesting and gratifying.”

There are, Vasi added, “all these really great pathways for students that are established for Harris, especially through Marlowe and his Center of Municipal Finance.”

But Marlowe points right back to Harris’ students, calling out successes, including the gains made by the NFMA student chapter.

“They’ve built a culture around municipal finance that makes an otherwise dry subject inviting and exciting,” he said about the organization. “Once students are introduced to that culture, they see how they can build a career in this space.” 

After graduation, Weiss plans to move to Pennsylvania for a job in energy policy. While Vasi and Mull-Dreyer both expect to stay in the Midwest, doing work in the municipal finance sector. Mull-Dreyer said he “seeks to focus on state and local governments' ability to scale and finance infrastructure projects in tandem with private investment.”

As the Harris School flexes its muscles in the municipal finance sphere—and opens internship doors like those at F&A—"students are uniquely positioned to pursue impactful careers in this field thanks to the visionary leadership and scholarship of both Professors Berry and Marlowe,” Mull-Dreyer said. 

“There are,” he added, “unlimited directions you can go within the municipal finance field.”