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MPA Degree Program: Promoting Social Justice and Equity in Teaching and Learning

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

By Michael E. Orok
February 27, 2023

After appropriate institutional vetting and approval by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and its Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC), we stood up a Master’s degree in Public Administration at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University in Huntsville, Alabama.

Initiating the MPA degree program was not the most daunting task because of the tremendous amount of support from colleagues and the ASPA central office staff. The first task was to determine what type of degree program, pedagogy and learning environment we intended to provide for the students. This led to the choice of an all-inclusive curriculum.

The principle that guided the curriculum development was the understanding that many administrative professionals were drawn to the variety of job responsibilities inherent in public sector work and that a career in public administration could be uniquely satisfying, and the right education could provide the expertise needed to successfully navigate a career in the ever-changing, fast pace and multicultural public sector. With the understanding of the role multiculturalism plays in the workplace environment and the demand for diverse management strategies, we, therefore, aimed to structure a curriculum and create a learning environment where we would teach public administration courses and related principles that promotes inclusivity and equity in the classroom.

The search for a benchmark on similar industry-based programs, founded on inclusivity and equity, led to a publication by the American Jewish Committee in November 2009, and the adoption of their learning approach. The central idea was to create a “Community of Conscience” where students’ opinions, ideas and capabilities are valued and incorporated into the teaching and learning processes. This concept is important because, similar to the multicultural nature of the workplace environment, the classroom is characterized by students with varied viewpoints and learning capabilities, yet, students must be taught and learn how to affect change in their own communities and to compete favorably both locally and internationally. Incorporating multiculturalism and equity in the learning environment and teaching strategies will produce a ‘well-balanced knowledge bank’ for students.

Equity is not “sameness”, it is a fair and impartial coverage of a subject matter that allows the student to engage and navigate within an organization without the feeling of disparity. With that in mind, we created substantive academic content that highlights aspects of social justice and equity including the selective use of case studies, examples and symbols and the selection of research topics that include an in-depth analysis of problems associated with equity and justice. For example, in one of my introductory MPA courses entitled Seminar in Public Administration which is a typical core course in most programs, a case study on public policy making regarding the hurricane Katrina disaster in Louisiana was selected. This case study addresses all of the underlying issues related to social justice, equity and inclusion concerns. It addresses concerns not only for minority communities but for all others in the community including environmental justice concerns. It highlights the inequity in past and current policy implementation in Louisiana and the disparate response from authorities to the dangers of the hurricane depending on what group of citizens were affected and how.

As learners, students need to understand policy implications and appreciate the disparities in policy interpretation and implementation while learning to generate solutions for how best to address them. Hence the foundation of our teaching and learning culture; where instructors and students learn to appreciate the complexity of their environment. Also, we support the notion of the instructor as a guide and collaborator in the classroom, directing students’ discussions and redirecting the learning process in search of knowledge.

In 1970 Paulo Freire wrote the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The author suggested the departure from the “unidirectional” approach to learning in which the teacher feeds the students information. The idea here is to shift from the traditional “banking model” and allow students to become active rather than passive learners. In this regard, we also encourage MPA instructors to embrace cultural competency as a bedrock for information sharing, where each student’s shared experience and background is considered a part of the learning process. In fact, we go even further by encouraging the integration of guest lecturers and subject matter experts, team teaching and participant-led discussions as part of the learning process. In this regard, we have moved away from designing a curriculum that would benefit one group of students over another. As reflected in a 2012 article published by the Journal of Teaching and Teacher Education, vol.28, p. 485, “the biggest challenge facing today’s teachers is the ability to work effectively and equitably in a diverse learning environment”. Therefore, in addition to constructing a dynamic curriculum, we integrate social justice and equity into our academic content to ensure that we do not engender “deficit learning”.

Author: Michael E. Orok, Ph.D.., is a Professor of Political Science & Public Administration and Interim Chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Alabama A & M University, College of Business & Public Affairs, Huntsville, Alabama. He has held various key academic leadership positions in higher Education for many years. He is a member of ASPA’s Section on Public Administration Education.  [email protected]

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