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From Academia to the Agency: Leaving the Classroom (and Returning) to Learn Firsthand

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

By Don Weiss
September 16, 2014

Weiss sept

With a young kid’s dream of working in broadcasting, volunteering at age 18 at the local cable TV station and an undergraduate degree in television, I never thought I would pursue a master’s degree in public administration, be elected to public office and work more than 30 years for one local government. Experience and academics will come together to tell my story.

The Village of Addison, Illinois hired me as the cable television coordinator in 1984. In 1990, Addison’s village manager, Joseph Block, encouraged me to pursue a master’s degree in public administration (MPA) from Northern Illinois University, his alma matter. At age 25, I enrolled as a “student at large.” My first MPA class in fall 1990 was “Scope and Dynamics of Public Administration,” the introductory course taught by Dr. William Monat, a one-time president of NIU. I was introduced to Woodrow Wilson’s theories of public administration and its relationship to the political world of policy makers. In my case, the two worlds would one day collide.

Most of Dr. Monat’s comments on my essays read “good discussion drawing on your own experience,” and “perceptive discussion of your own experience.” It seemed that working in the field would payoff in grad school. These classes were held every other Saturday over a 14 week semester for seven hours. This format was to accommodate those students with a weekday work schedule. Seven hours on a Saturday was grueling at times, especially when the bright golden colors of autumn on a college campus would shine through the classroom windows. Today, those classes are condensed into an eight-week format of five hours one night a week. Back then, there was no online platform like Blackboard to post discussions or receive assignments. It all had to be done in class.

My Saturday classes continued in spring 1991 with “State Politics and Local Service” and “Management of Not for Profit Agencies” in the fall. A staffer of the Illinois House Republican leader taught the class on state politics. My term paper was on an Addison interceptor sewer project and the state environmental protection agency loan to fund the project. Addison’s environmental services director gave me a world of valuable background information. Recently, Addison paid off that loan and is now embarking on a $7 million master plan project using a similar low-interest state loan.

In the nonprofit agencies class, we often had guest speakers. One speaker was on the staff of the Illinois Association of Not for Profit Organizations. Later, the speaker would be interviewed on Addison’s cable channel to discuss the organization and what they do. My term paper for that class was on the Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association (NEDSRA) based in Addison. Today, NEDSRA remains an active organization and recently began training producers with special needs in the production of local cable programming at the studio where I work. The topics from those classes, all those years ago, are still relevant today.

While taking these classes gave me a frame of reference for the often-chaotic work I faced each day, I realized that being a city manager was not for me. I still wanted to work in video production and with my new responsibilities of public relations. I quit going to NIU after three classes. I continued to work for Addison, got married in 1994 and we had a daughter a few years later. I had no plan of returning to graduate school.

In 1999, my family moved to nearby Carol Stream and two years later I was appointed to Carol Stream’s planning commission. Those years were also a good chance to see what policymaking would be like and how it differed from nearly 20 years as a village staff member. In 2007, I ran for Village trustee. With the team of my wife and daughter, we had nominating petitions signed, walked precincts, put up yard signs and even asked for campaign donations. At a candidate forum, I met a woman who said she would vote for me because of my experience in local government. On election night, I won the third seat by 56 votes. Yes, every vote counts.

Working full time for Addison and in a “part-time” capacity as a Carol Stream trustee never conflicted and the two often complimented each other. Ideas from Addison, such as an annual town meeting with taxing body board presidents and citizens, fit well into Carol Stream and now both towns hold such events. A summer concert event in Carol Stream to benefit troops serving overseas is now an annual event in Addison.

By 2013, more than 20 years since I was in an MPA class, I began to think about going back for my master’s degree. Would I major in video production? No, I’ve been doing this for 30 years. What about continuing with public administration? Being a little older and wiser, my experience on both the administrative and policymaking sides of a public agency could make me a more confident student.

After contacting NIU and asking about the validity of my credits from the early 1990s, I was allowed to come back and pick up where I left off. Today, at age 50, I am back to complete my graduate certificate and eventually enroll as an MPA student. Topics such as “New Public Service” describe the public administrator in today’s world, one whose role in government is to “serve.” Twenty-five years ago, the students in Dr. Monat’s class were new public administrators who learned to “steer.” Beyond the mechanics of public administration, today’s classes go behind how the public sector works and why. They call me a “mid-career” student. I think of myself as a student coming back to learn the meaning of my experience.

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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.

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