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MPA Programs Must Be Innovative and Responsive

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

By Tamara Schaps 
August 11, 2015

The career climate is dramatically different today than it was 10 years ago and college campuses are responding. As career experts Farouk Dey and Christine Y. Cruzvergara note in their July 2014 article, “Leaders from small and large, public and private, and rural and urban universities around the country are leaning forward and leading the emerging paradigm shift in college career services.” Networking is outdated. Customized connections and community ecosystems are the future.

Master of public administration (MPA) programs that embrace this career climate shift will thrive, while those that don’t risk falling behind. Moreover, today’s public servants encounter demanding challenges like climate change, big/open data, citizen-driven transparency requests and more public-private partnerships than ever before. With a new name and a longstanding commitment to innovation, the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy & Governance is ensuring continued success through a responsive curriculum and strategic partnerships.

Responsive Curriculum

Administrators and faculty at professional MPA degree programs must frequently examine their curriculum and ask if it is effectively preparing students for success. The Evans School engages in continuous process improvement by conducting annual alumni surveys, regularly evaluating our internship requirement, and offering new classes in response to workforce opportunities and student demand. For example, in 2014, Evans School Advisory Board member, alumnus and longtime city manager Richard Zais, in collaboration with professor Justin Marlowe, proposed and created a highly successful inaugural municipal management course in response to the pressing next generation needs of the field. In addition, we recently launched a new curriculum development survey, in which recent graduates had an opportunity to provide a self-assessment of their learning and professional growth throughout their degree program. The findings will inform faculty and our Career Services team in the year ahead.

The Evans School also piloted several popular deep dive and case-writing seminar courses, allowing students to build knowledge in niche areas, collaborate closely with community organizations, and fulfill the capstone requirement in creative and applicable new ways. Students in one deep dive class researched best practices for emissions accounting practices for GASB. Another group studied what policies should be recommended in order to reduce Seattle’s educational achievement and attainment gaps by race, ethnicity and income. It is important that MPA programs approach the curriculum in this agile way – excited to assess and ready to respond with improvement and innovation.

Strategic Partnerships

Relationships matter to an innovation culture. People are central to public administration and are important feedback loops to which MPA programs should pay attention. The Evans School is filled with talented and diverse students, faculty, and administrators who are committed to building a more socially just and equitable world.

In order to serve the public, we believe our students must be exposed to multiple perspectives including cultural, physical, intellectual and economic diversity. This year the school united in response to a call to action from students to reflect upon our Diversity Strategic Action Plan and to prioritize specific achievable policy objectives. At the core, our goal is to both advance diversity at the Evans School and better prepare graduates for success in diverse organizations.

The newly formed ICMA Student Chapter at the Evans School also focused on diversity by strengthening relationships with local municipal managers and hosting a diversity & equity panel to discuss racial and gender inequities within the field and generate potential solutions. Building strategic partnerships between students, faculty, administrators and external community members is important to preparing MPA students for leadership in an increasingly diverse public sector workplace.

Embrace the Change

As reported in a July 2015 PA Times article, “According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers plan to hire 9.6 percent more graduates than they did from the previous graduating class.” This is good news for recent MPA graduates. However, when examined in concert with an ever-changing career climate and the challenges of the modern public sector workplace, it is apparent that MPA programs must work hard to clearly communicate the value of an MPA degree to prospective employers and ensure students are prepared for what comes next.

Graduating from programs that are responsive and innovative gives students and alumni a greater chance of career success because they are practiced in solving problems, valuing diversity and building relationships. Providing intentional opportunities for students to forge meaningful connections and create community ecosystems through responsive curriculum and strategic partnerships is vital. All MPA programs should embrace these two approaches while at the same time striving to generate new ideas for the future.

What is your school doing to ensure the MPA program stays relevant in today’s new career climate? How are you preparing your students to tackle the complex problems they will face in the modern public sector workplace? We invite you to comment and share ideas below!

Author: Tamara Schaps is the director of career services at the University of Washington, Evans School of Public Policy & Governance. She has worked in higher education for the past 10 years and has a master’s degree in higher education administration from The George Washington University and bachelor’s degrees in communication and global studies from Pacific Lutheran University.

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