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Passing on the Torch: Incorporating DEI Curricular in Advancing the Common Good

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

By Mercy O. Umeri and James Roberts
June 30, 2023

Since 1972, when the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA), was formed, the study of DEI has gone from nonexistent to being one of the core competency areas that public administration degree granting programs must satisfy in the accreditation process. The concept of DEI has evolved from a legal compliance issue to being a cultural competence that administrators must have if they must thrive in the 21st century workplace. Whether looking internally at policies, culture and values or outwardly at the constituency served, an evolving framework for understanding and practicing diversity, equity and inclusion is viewed as benefitting the organization’s success and longevity as well as improving the quality of service provided to its affected audience (Young, 2021).

This paper seeks to answer the following questions: How are we teaching and training the next generation of public administrators through the way we develop and teach our DEI courses?

The study of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is at the forefront for higher education institutions (HEIs) and the contemporary public sector organizations. The importance for DEI in policy studies have been well documented especially in the last decade. As HEIs continue to emphasize the study of DEI especially as it concerns training the next generation of public administrators, it must find ways to pass on the necessary knowledge and skills associated with DEI.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Pedagogy

A review of research conducted in the past twenty years helps provide insight into the classroom application of diversity education in the master’s programs of the NASPAA membership. Further review includes those dimensions of diversity beyond the classroom curriculum. Essential to this understanding is a brief history of the subject in relation to the workforce and how the concept of diversity has evolved from an issue of strict legal compliance (Smith, 2019) to a matter of nuanced cultural competency (White, 2004). While equity and inclusion each are fundamental to a 21st century workforce and public sector organization, they are unique topics with significant history in the field of public administration. Equity—namely social equity—has a history within the academic field dating to the 1970’s (Hewins-Maroney & Williams, 2007).

A 2014 study by Hewins-Maroney & Williams examined NASPAA member programs but studied the inclusion of diversity in syllabi and not simply course descriptions. They expanded the dimensions of diversity beyond the course material to include the diversity of the instructors, by rank and gender. Their findings pointed to a less robust presence of diversity within MPA courses than previously reported. More to the point, diversity fit a narrow definition in most cases, and was limited in its scope of MPA courses (Sabharwa, Hijal-Moghrabi & Royster, 2014).  

The term diversity itself has evolved in the view of public administration programs. In both White (2004) and Hewins-Maroney & Williams (2007) study, the term diversity is used to describe race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion and disability differences. In 2014, Sabharwal, Hijal-Moghrabi and Royster used a broader definition of diversity, including gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, language, culture, nationality, socioeconomic status, physical ability and sexual orientation (Sabharwal, Hijal-Moghrabi & Royster, 2014). By the time the 2019 NASPAA Standards were adopted, the definition of diversity was even broader now described as representation of differences relating to social identity categories and included expanded categories of gender identity (NASPAA, 2020).

It is essential that the training and education of public administration leaders match the scope of diversity-related knowledge and skill development required for the modern public workforce and constituency. Also, with more than 75 million Baby Boomers retiring in less than five years, there will be a new crop of faculty members entering the field. The new faculty members need to understand the history and development of DEI ideas. The natural place for that knowledge and skill development to take place is in the classrooms and coursework of NASPAA accredited MPA programs.

This is not theory—the need is essential. The ability to navigate diverse communities and embrace diversity as a value within an organization is a key to avoiding diversity in name or “equal opportunity on paper,” only (Young, 2021, p. 39). The fact remains that NASPAA standards present a chance to engage and mold future leaders at a critical juncture and can “help bridge the gap between theory and practice for future administrators,” (Blessett, 2018, p. 428).

At the Hugo Wall School, we are intentional about how we engage students about DEI issues. We understand that our students are a part of the new generation of leaders and administrators. Therefore, we encourage our students to fully participate, not as spectators in the classroom but as coproducers of knowledge. We do this in the following ways:

  • The mission of our program emphasizes how integral DEI is to the learning of our students.
  • We tailor assignments to integrate the concepts of DEI. Using case studies, students can apply the skills they are learning about DEI to real-life situations.
  • We invite subject matter experts and practitioners to talk about DEI issues in our classrooms and students can have their questions answered in real time.
  • We have created standalone DEI modules that specifically equip our students with the DEI skills and competencies they need to succeed.

The expectation should be that the programs developing and educating public administration students clearly articulate and fully embrace standards that prepare public leaders with the knowledge, skills and experience necessary to cultivate diversity as a practice and value within the organization they lead and communities they serve.

Authors: Dr. Mercy O. Umeri, Ed.D. is an assistant teaching professor at the Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs, Wichita State University.  Dr. Umeri worked in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors with more than 18 years of global experience combined. Her research focuses on social equity, public administration education and educational policy in higher education. Dr. Umeri is a member of ASPA SPAE (Section on Public Administration Education).

James Roberts was a student in Dr. Umeri’s “Human Resources Management for Public and Nonprofit Organizations” course. James is passionate about DEI issues in the field of public administration.

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