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Discussing Controversial Issues in Public Policy Graduate Courses

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Popejoy
November 29, 2016

Many graduate students—particularly new students who may or may not have had direct public work experience—must  learn to engage in discussions on controversial or sensitive public policy issues. This is part of the public policy, political and social processes endemic to certain degree programs and careers.

Students seeking a career in public service, as well as other venues, must learn to take part in difficult debates on critical issues without taking offense or creating a more hostile environment by use of inappropriate language or overt attitudes. This is essential to the development of mature professionals in professions such as public administration, public health, health administration, social services administration, criminal justice (courts and police community leadership), education and to majors leading to future corporate leadership positions.

In higher education, the one predictable aspect is that students are unpredictable. All professors face each course they teach from two directions. Either they can work to maintain students in their collective “happy place” in an effort to be both popular and maintain the best potential possible for high ratings from student evaluations of their performance, or they can take the road that forces students to confront the current policy and political realities—regardless of the consequences. This is obviously the less pleasant road. It is also far more risky to the professor’s career; particularly adjuncts who are easily dismissed at the hint of student dissatisfaction.

Psychologists have found that adults are fairly hardwired in their personalities and world views by the time they reach their mid-20s. However, current statistics suggest the average adult student in U.S. colleges is more than 30 years old, with many in their 40s, 50s or even older. It is a given that students will have hardened personal world views and there will be significant tension in the classroom as these worldviews are challenged by the revelation of new information. The result will often be intense discussions with the potential for open hostility and resentment toward the source of this new information—which is the professor and/or the textbook selected by the professor or the university. Adults do not surrender or modify their views lightly and will often argue vehemently the position they have held for many years, even in the face of overwhelming evidence challenging their strongly held beliefs.

What are some topics that lead to tension and conflict in class discussions? A partial list includes abortion, capital punishment, profiling by law enforcement, poverty and welfare, health care, gun control, prison systems and incarceration, low-income housing, homeland security policies and procedures, and virtually every public policy currently under consideration.

The question for university faculty and administrators becomes: are we doing students a disservice by purposely avoiding the tensions created by new information? Are we avoiding hostility and resentment in the classroom because of potential grievances and poor evaluations from students who are offended by such discussions? This is where the “courage to teach” becomes a reality instead of a cliché. Professors can avoid controversy by staying on safe ground or actively engage students in the important controversial issues that pervade the particular discipline being taught.

Professors must prepare students for culture shocks and have a strong grasp on topics that have an emotional impact. Preparation should begin in the syllabus (a statement on civility in the classroom). Further, in the course introduction, professors should tell students what to expect by drawing their attention to the section in the syllabus where civility and critical thinking is discussed. Finally, professors should engage in a frank and open discussion in class (or online) in the first class session to be sure students understand what to expect in the course.


Author: Michael W. Popejoy, M.B.A., Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S., FRSPH is cross trained with his Ph.D. in public administration and an M.P.H. in public health from a CEPH accredited school. He also teaches both graduate public administration and graduate public health. Email:[email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

3 Responses to Discussing Controversial Issues in Public Policy Graduate Courses

  1. Natalie Lowell Reply

    December 27, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    The classroom gives us students an environment to express our ideas, support them, and here opposing ideas so as we can have the experience of the “real-world” not just the safe classroom environment. Professors ought to work towards giving students these opportunities, this is how we grow and development before hitting the real-world work place.

  2. Tricia Nolfi Reply

    November 30, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    I have found that these difficult conversations are by far among the most beneficial for students. Seizing the opportunity to discuss a current events or thorny issues pushes students to think critically, asses their values and assumptions, and respond in a safe environment. Such conversations should be at the heart of our courses.

  3. Larry Keeton Reply

    November 29, 2016 at 7:34 pm

    Excellent points. Anyone seeking a degree in Public Administration, or plans to work in the public sector, need to have skill sets that deal with the citizens. Citizens are not prone to being civil when they feel they’re being abused, mistreated, ignored, talked down to, etc.
    Having the type of discussions you suggest on controversial topics, learning to analyze them from another perspective, and being emphatic to an opposing view bodes well for professionals in this career field. Despite the rhetoric, the world’s not black and white, many of the issues addressed are often gray. Thus, someone capable of being civil in working through such issues is valuable.
    Where does a student learn it? My experience is often on the job, which is really too late to pick up basic skills. The ideas you suggest would provide a student some learning experiences in a “less than hostile” environment.
    As a longtime practitioner, the question I would ask is academia willing to adopt such an approach. When I went to college in the late 1960s-early 1970s, my graduate schooling in the 1980s and again in early 2000s, I found that academia had changed. Professors were prone to preach their doctrine rather than force students to pick a position and defend it. Given what I’m reading now about a American school removing the American Flag as being too controversial, students being excused from tests because of election “stress,” etc. can a teacher with your viewpoint survive in such an environment?
    Again, great ideas.

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