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For United States Schools of Public Policy, Is It Good Enough to Keep Muddling Through?

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

By Erik Devereux
February 4, 2020

This is the first of four columns I will write in 2020 about the current state of United States schools of public policy. To be precise, I am referring to those schools that offer the Master of Public Policy (MPP) or equivalent degree, and not schools of public administration that only offer the Master of Public Administration degree. For those hybrid schools that offer both, my comments will be contained to the MPP side of the hallway. In a nutshell, this column explains why there should be concern about the future of public policy schools amidst the landscape of professional graduate education in the 21st century.

Before explaining why there should be concern about the future of the public policy schools, allow me briefly to state my qualifications.

  • I was the director of the Master of Science in Public Policy and Management program in the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University from 1995 to 1998, during which I conducted a systematic review of the concentration in policy analysis and of the client project capstone.
  • I was executive director of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management from 1999 to 2010, during which I developed and published an annual report on MPP admissions, hosted an annual conference of MPP admissions directors and helped produce the landmark 2006 Park City (Utah) conference on the MPP curriculum.
  • As an independent consultant since 2010 I have consulted about the client project capstone requirement for the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington (conducting comprehensive benchmarking in both cases).
  • I have taught public policy analysis at Carnegie Mellon University, American University and Georgetown University.

I also was fortunate to have Sandra Archibald, the emeritus dean of the Evans School, as a mentor for 15 years in thinking about the status of the public policy schools.

My starting point for looking at the current state of the public policy schools is to list them among all the types of professional graduate schools found at United States universities today. The table accompanying this column organizes that list into three groups: At left, those degrees that must be earned in order to work in the related profession; at center, those degrees that sometimes are necessary to work in the related profession; and at right, those that are completely unnecessary to work in the related profession.

Not only is the MPP in the third group but it is the only one in all the lists that remains completely obscure among the public at large. You can walk up to any adult on the street, ask, “What do people with an M.D. do?” and expect most of the time to get a reasonable answer. The odds of a reasonable answer actually are quite good for the Master of Public Administration, which most often is perceived as the public sector equivalent to an MBA. Try that with the MPP!

The lack of educational brand identity is only one piece of the problem. Perhaps more concerning is the lack of a distinct research identity on the university campus.

Several years ago, I attended the annual school alumni awards banquet at a major research university located about 5.3 miles from my home in Silver Spring, MD. At this event, each of the schools on the campus showed a brief promotional video that highlighted their roles in the world. That year, every video focused on how each school was shaping public policy. Even the videos from the business school and the fine arts school offered very strong cases for their public policy impacts. By far, the weakest video among the bunch was the one produced by the public policy school.

That weakness was symptomatic of a missing raison d’etre for the composition of the policy school faculty from a research perspective. To be blunt, it would be easy to carve up the faculty of a policy school and re-assign them to other schools on campus. That would not be the case, say, for the school of pharmacy or fine arts or even business.

United States policy schools lack an educational brand identity and a distinct research purpose after being on the scene for more than 50 years now. That is a long time to still be living in the shadows. The one success they can claim is that students keep enrolling in the MPP in sufficient numbers to justify the enterprise to the bean counters on campus. But is that form of muddling through good enough to survive the intensifying competition for resources on campus in this century? The next column in this series will delve into how the policy schools arrived at this juncture, and what that might suggest about a better strategy going forward.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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