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The Future of Practitioner-Focused MPA Programs

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

By Michael R. Ford
August 7, 2023

Last week a friend and colleague who teaches at a historically strong MPA program told me that he ia essentially the last faculty member standing. Faculty are leaving in droves and not being replaced. Earlier this summer two other friends and colleagues shared that they were laid off from their practitioner-focused teaching jobs. Most recently I heard from a colleague at a MPA program I have long admired who, quite shockingly, shared a litany of enrollment, funding and faculty retention challenges she was facing. More broadly, following Public Administration professors on social media reveals that many folks are moving towards a handful of well-resourced research-focused programs.

Professors changing jobs is par for the course in academia, and I would never blame anyone for moving to a university that aligns with their career goals. But I am concerned that the migration of faculty follows a predictable pattern indicative of threats to the health of the larger field. Many practitioner-focused MPA programs are housed outside state flagship universities. My program, for example, is at a regional comprehensive university that primarily serves undergraduates. As a regional comprehensive university, we have higher teaching loads, less research support and less institutional infrastructure for graduate education compared to a state flagship institution.

The differences between university types are not inherently a problem. It makes sense that a university primarily focused on teaching would require higher faculty teaching loads, offer less research support and lack the infrastructure of a PhD granting institution. It also makes sense that so many practitioner-focused MPA programs are housed at such universities. The MPA is, after all, a degree focused on practice. But it is also true that demographic shifts and declining state support for higher education disproportionally impact non-flagship institutions without the research dollars nor out-of-state/international appeal to offset fundings cuts and undergraduate demographic shifts.

To put it bluntly, constant resource challenges are making it harder for many institutions to maintain quality MPA programs, and to retain quality faculty. I asked my colleagues at the aforementioned struggling MPA programs why faculty are leaving. All gave some variation of the job not being what they signed up for when they took the position. Digging deeper, it usually means some combination of research funds being cut, teaching loads being raised, a growing reliance on adjunct faculty when hiring is frozen and the elimination of full-time non-tenure track positions to save money.

Where does this all lead? I would expect the MPA programs housed at well-resourced elite institutions to stay strong. That is an unequivocally good thing. My concern is for the future of programs that look like my own. We have a 50+ year history, 600+ alumni, an established track record of producing government leaders in Wisconsin and strong connections to practice. Every state has programs like mine that add local value in ways that cannot be replicated by an out-of-state elite institution. If the institutions that produce local government leaders struggle, or cease to exist, it will be local governments that suffer. Leadership positions formerly held by MPAs from practitioner-focused programs will be filled by someone. But will they have the commitment to nonpartisan professionalism, and values like efficiency and equity, that are so vital to local government performance? I hope so, but I do not know.

So what can be done? Foremost it is vital for our field to be proactive. That can include modernizing our offerings beyond the traditional MPA so as to adjust to changing workforce needs, as well as resource realities. I also think we can modernize or create alternative accreditation processes and standards to be more inclusive of programs that add value outside the typical mold. Those of us teaching at non-elite institutions need to be proactive too. That can include seeking out philanthropic funds to support programming, and, utilizing fee-for-service work as a revenue stream. Both of those things are much easier said than done. A more realistic approach might be consolidation of existing MPA programs. Here in Wisconsin, for example, we have a single university system with three unique MPA programs. My dream is to combine these programs into one system-wide program with the faculty size, research expertise and resources to compete with any program in the country.

The bottom line is our profession will suffer if only a handful of MPA programs have the capacity to serve the many needs of local governments. In a time of declining trust in government, and ongoing threats to the democratic governing norm, I think it is important we as a field be open about our challenges and embrace the collaboration needed to further public service education.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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