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Making the Most of Undergraduate Public Administration

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

By Michael Ford
September 29, 2017

I recently taught my first undergraduate session of the semester and was reminded of the challenges and opportunities in teaching undergraduate Public Administration (PA). It was a scene that repeats itself at the start of every semester. I stand in front of a classroom of 60 undergraduates and ask them why they signed up for Introduction to PA. The most common answer? It is required for the Criminal Justice or Urban Planning major. I follow up by asking them, do you know what PA is? Some speculate it has something to do with politics. Others look at the text and affirm it has something to do with government. When I ask for more details, I get blank stares. I do not blame the students for their lack of knowledge; aside from it being the start of the semester, the subject matter in PA is vast in scope, and often explained from the viewpoint of the practitioner or the academic. Both of these perspectives are valuable, but they fail to translate to an 18-22 year old full-time student. To put it another way, these perspectives can be boring.

But PA need not be boring, or irrelevant, to an undergraduate audience. As those teaching in the dozens of institutions offering undergraduate PA programs already know, the management skills offered in PA programs can set students apart from their peers in the job market. I, for example, oversee a PA minor program and I am happy to say graduates from a diversity of majors have found the minor to be professionally useful. But to be useful it is essential that undergrad PA programs be more than what George Dougherty deemed “MPA-lite degrees.” In that regard, both Dougherty and NASPAA offer guidelines on how to build a curriculum tailored to undergraduates. Both resources are great for designing an undergraduate program, but how do instructors make the most out of their undergraduate PA courses? Here are a few tips.

First, encourage students to embrace the paradoxes funai - college studentinherent in PA. Our field is not just a set of best practices or a checklist of hard competencies. Yes, those competencies do exist in the form of budgeting, methods, human resources, etc., but I find the broad challenge of implementing the collective will of a divided public is far more exciting to undergraduates. Case studies of when government goes wrong, and real life war stories from instructors with practitioner experience can go along way in making PA relatable and understandable to younger students.

Second, do not be afraid of politics. As Woodrow Wilson wrote in his seminal essay, “[t]he science of administration is the latest fruit of that study of the science of politics.” Though the exact nature of the relationship between politics and administration is a matter of debate, PA is tied to politics, and politics is a subject that most undergraduate students are familiar with and willing to discuss. If politics is the expression of values and administration is the implementation of values, it is natural to engage students in the former as a bridge to the latter.

Third, instructors need to know and utilize their audience. Because my classroom is full of Criminal Justice majors, I go heavy on case studies and examples from law enforcement. I also use the large number of veterans in my courses as resources for explaining organizational life, bureaucracy and leadership. Though students appreciate real-world examples from the text, a real-word example from the student sitting next to them is even more valuable. Another way to put this is to meet students where they are. While a seasonal job as a lifeguard may not be the same as a career in local government, there are relevant lessons about administration present in both circumstances. Connecting PA to students’ personal experiences care create that aha moment where the theoretical becomes personally relevant.

Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, we need to ensure the excitement of PA is evident to the undergraduates who will be the future of our field. To me, PA is the process by which the freedom and treasure ceded by every citizen is distributed to all via the provision of goods and services. It follows the practice of PA has a real and lasting impact on all citizens. It is messy, it is broad, it is confusing, and it is essential to an equitable society. It is field in which undergraduates can learn how to make a real difference in their specific communities, as well as society at-large. How exciting is that?


Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He has published over two-dozen academic articles on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. Prior to joining academia, Michael worked for many years on education policy in Wisconsin.

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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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