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Getting Serious About Practitioners In The Classroom

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

By Stephen Harding
January 25, 2019

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Wow, she is dead on. Back in the February 2018 issue of PA Times, Hillary Knepper, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Public Administration at Pace University posted an essay entitled, “Where Have All the Practitioners Gone? Securing the Active Practitioner for Adjunct Instruction.” In less than 800 words, she offers a foundational understanding of the necessity for and obstacles preventing the participation of active practitioners in the classroom. Her article goes on to suggest how those in academia can better support, train and encourage classroom participation from their public and non-profit sector counterparts. Her essay depicts a notion of inclusivity between practitioners and the academy that is not readily apparent in many MPA programs. In support of her arguments, and as a recently retired practitioner instructor myself, I offer some additional insights, both obvious and nuanced.

The Elusive Active Practitioner

If a public administration program prioritizes the recruitment of practitioner instructors, who do they target — one from the legions of retirees or another from the masses still working their day jobs? Professor Knepper is tactfully clear in her opinion; contemporary experience is more relevant. That’s the greater source of value. I had that same epiphany ending my own 15-year sojourn as a practitioner instructor back in September 2018.

I would suggest that there are a couple of variations to the concept of “Active” practitioner that needs further explanation. First of all, just because one is officially retired does not mean one is not active. Many encore careerists serve as consultants, advisory board members, writers, speakers, or mentors. Many are still deeply involved in their professional association of choice. Still motivated, they have the means to stay current and still provide the networking opportunities that are so important to both those early in their career and those just entering public service. These are the retirees that make staying current a priority. Without this interest, remaining retirees are left with their last reference point, hence, the too introspective and repetitive, “Back In My Day” syndrome.

Secondly, just because one is in service with a title does not mean he or she is experienced. Consequently, there is a pool of enthusiastic and bright yet untested individuals new to the boxes on the managerial org-chart. Many are prematurely filling the void created by the exodus of governmental retirees. They may be accomplished specialists but lack the managerial seasoning that comes with time and breadth. As such, there are words of caution; titles alone are inadequate gages when measuring experience, wisdom and knowledge. Proven experienced practical know-how is the primary reason to have the practitioner in the classroom in the first place. As suggested by Professor Knepper, the challenge for department chairs and faculty alike is to locate the elusive, well-seasoned and contemporarily active professional. They’re out there. They are just now reaching those upper rungs on the career ladder. Their biggest issue is time. If they have learned to manage it, then it is a matter of squeezing one more thing into the schedule. If motivated, they’ll make it work.

For The Academy— You Need to Get Serious

Academics need to truly value practitioners. Some don’t. These members carry the notion that practitioners are ill equipped to teach cognitive skill development. Non-academics have little understanding of the applications of broad based analytics and empirical data. They are limited by their own experiences and hence offer little in value. I will purposely limit my response here; it depends on the non-academic. As in both worlds, not all are created equal.

If the decision is made to invite practitioners to the table, be sincere about it. This is proven in a number of ways. Start by meeting them on their turf and at their professional association meetings.

  • Invite them to be members of your advisory board.
  • Invite them to be guest lecturers (especially your most accomplished alumni).
    • It’s a marketing tool welcomed by most practitioners.
  • Provide team teaching opportunities.
    • This provides exposure to the proper methods, tools, techniques and mechanics associated with teaching.
    • It is an opportunity for both the practitioner and faculty member to assess capability and fit.
  • Acknowledge that practitioners are not adjuncts in the traditional sense of the word (non-essential and subordinate).
    • Most without doctorates have no interest in becoming members of the academy. As such, they are not a part of the lowest level of the academic caste system.
    • They are Affiliates: Officially attached partners that already have careers. Their investment is their time.
  • Teach them Pedagogy.
  • Make them a part of your culture. Invite them to staff meetings and events.
  • Ask their opinions regarding course development and curriculum.
  • List their names on the department’s web page and printed ,aterials
  • Give them business cards and space to work.
  • Pay them, but know it is about appreciation, not money— Most would make much more doing something else.
    • It is mostly a volunteer effort— Remember, they are there by choice.

Fortunately, some of you recognize all of this. For me, if I were still active, I’d have my application on the desk of Professor Knepper.


Author: Stephen G. Harding recently completed 15 years as a practitioner instructor.Overlapping the last eleven of his 38-year public/private sector career, he has taught 50 courses for nearly 1,000 post-graduate students at five universities. As a city manager, executive director or corporate vice president, he has provided managerial, organizational and economic development advisory services to 60 clientagencies. He may be contacted at: [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.

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