Friday, June 24, 2022

Professor Samantha Zuhlke feels that she is starting a new adventure at the same time as the University of Iowa School of Planning and Public Affairs’ (SPPA) first master’s in public affairs cohort. Her goal is to help grow the program into a launchpad for changemakers. According to Zuhlke, “In part, I am excited about my new role because of the new MPA program. It is rare to come into a program as an assistant professor where you have the opportunity to contribute to the growth of a new program. Both faculty and students are dedicated to building the program, so there is a lot of positive momentum.”

Headshot of Samanth Zuhlke

Zuhlke also values the emphasis on sustainability, both within SPPA and across the university. “I am excited about the potential for a new MPA program at Iowa’s flagship University, especially because the institution places such an emphasis on sustainability and building sustainable infrastructure. It’s a great bridge between the new public affairs degree and our existing urban planning degree.”

Professor Zuhlke’s research focuses on environmental politics, non-profits, and spatial statistics, with her topics of interest often bridging all three areas. Zuhlke recently published “Acres for the Affluent: An Interactive Model of Nonprofit Resources and Demand Heterogeneity” in the Journal of Applied Research and Technology. In “Acres for the Affluent,” Zuhlke reexamines the roots of the U.S. nonprofit sector, suggesting that while demand for non-profit services often increases in areas with more diversity, access to resources is essential for this demand to be realized.

“People start non-profits if they are dissatisfied with the quantity or quality of service that government provides, and you see higher levels of dissatisfaction in places where the population is diverse. My research shows that wanting services from an alternative provider like a nonprofit is not enough; you need to have the resources to make it happen. If we don’t consider the role of resources within the non-profit sector, we might be overlooking inequities that are being compounded.”

According to Zuhlke, this research should inform planners and policymakers' concerns about equity within the non-profit sector and encourages them to consider whose interests are being served, and whose are left out. “Planners or policymakers interacting with non-profits should be thinking about whose interests are being represented, and those working in a resource-intensive space must consider the possible shortcomings of representation within those spaces.”

Along with this article, Zuhlke has an upcoming book, The Profits of Distrust: Confidence in American institutions and the rise of commercial drinking water, being published with Cambridge University Press in the Fall of 2022. The book is co-authored with Dr. Manny Teodoro (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Dr. David Switzer (University of Missouri). “We explore the question of why people drink expensive, less-regulated commercial water instead of cheaper, more heavily regulated tap water. We argue the decision to purchase commercial drinking water, like bottled water or water from kiosk dispensers, tells us something deeper about Americans’ relationship with the government,” Zuhlke said.

The Profits of Distrust argues that provision of clean drinking water is a basic service provided by the government, and when governments in the U.S. fail to adequately provide basic services, people’s trust in government falls significantly. This lack of trust leads consumers to purchase commercial water. More concerning, purchasing commercial water is often associated with a retreat from the political process, which further reduces the incentives of government to provide reliable, high-quality services. “It’s not all bad news, though. We believe this vicious cycle can be reversed --- providing clean, safe drinking water is a great place to start rebuilding trust in American government,” says Zuhlke.

Zuhlke is optimistic about the future of the MPA program and her research at U Iowa. “When I moved to Texas, I saw water kiosks for the first time, which spurred my interest in what causes people to use these kiosks. I am excited to learn about Iowa’s unique local attributes and discover new research topics!”