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The State of Public Administration Programs in Higher Education

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

By Dwight Vick
October 29, 2018

Just as I completed the longhand version of this PA Times article, I learned about the plethora of pipe bombs while I edited the first draft of this article. I watched for updates.

At first, I was terrified for targeted elected officials, journalists and cultural leaders. My thoughts quickly turned to the heroic bureaucrats who unknowingly delivering, detected and detonated the bombs – postal workers, staffers, various police and canine units, emergency managers and investigators whose lives are risked saving ours.

I edited again.

Given the article’s purpose, I asked myself what role higher education and public administration programs played in this success. My answer was a resounding yes. Every public administration professor, street-level bureaucrat, professional trainer taught postal workers, staffers, law enforcement, emergency managers and investigators well. We performed our jobs. We cooperated. We kept the nation safe despite the chasms that divide us. Bureaucracy saved us once again. But will the divisions within higher education fail to educate those nameless, faceless heroes who, once again, saved us.

Earlier this year, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an opinion piece written by Dr. Christian Smith, sociology professor at Notre Dame University. Entitled “Higher Education is Drowning in BS,” Smith stated that so much manure had crippled the university’s capacity to grapple with life’s Big Questions due to a crisis of faith in truth, reality, reason, evidence, argument, civility and common humanity. This fragmentation was a result of hypersensitivity and academic disciplines unable to talk with each other about shared concerns while creating a core curriculum that’s more of an uneasy truce between departments and divisions attempting to fill classes with students. Students attack professors who challenge them by complaining to tenured professors, administrators and elected officials for other professors intellectually challenging them. College administrators and tenured faculty members practice contempt prior to full investigation by aligning with the student over the teacher, a common K-12 practice. Tenure means lifetime employment that has become almost impossible to obtain. State legislatures decrease budgets, leaving administrators to raise revenue by increasing tuition, decrease full-time faculty costs by replacing them with lesser-expensive adjunct faculty, and establish athletic programs while siphoning funds away from academia to support marketing adventures. In the end, student learning is sacrificed at the altar of sought after practical degrees that poorly prepared them due to faculty infighting, administrative bloat and overpricing. Smith states this largely ignored BS is a result of complex dysfunctions, duplicity, unaccountability and moral coercion in institutional systems that contributes to larger political and cultural conflict.

Dr. Clara Lovett, President Emerita of Northern Arizona University, agreed with Smith. He described real problems but offered no solution. Lovett offered three. First, presidential and trustee associations introduce a three-year ban on institutional rankings. Secondly, disciplinary associations work with doctoral-granting institutions to reduce the number of Ph.D.s and Ed.Ds where production exceeds demand. Third, college administrators, trustees, AAUP, faculty unions, disciplinary associations, etc., reaffirm tenure as essential to academic freedom, freedom of speech and inquiry to protect faculty. President Lovett is correct but I think her response excludes an important component of this debate – students, faculty, K-12 educators and working professionals.

College administrators have no other choice but to increase student service administrators so students have an organization to instruct them on how to be a college student. Teach students that learning challenges one to see ideas from different perspectives and not personal affronts. The “old guard versus Young Turks” struggle between tenured faculty attempting to insulate themselves from job loss by sacrificing tenure-track colleagues needs to conclude along with interdepartmental struggles to prove a profession’s relevance by requiring its courses to be part of a university’s core curriculum. Professors as well as K-12 teachers are inundated with a matrix-based evaluation system that tests test-taking and not knowledge. Working professionals provide on-the-job training for our graduates. K-12 teachers understand pedagogy and professionals know what they require from newly-hired college graduates.

John Trelin’s book, The History of American Higher Education, outlines the 300-year-old history behind the Smith-Lovell debate.

How does this debate impact public administration programs? We first must recognize what we do well. The recently thwarted terrorist acts are under investigation by public administrators proves what public administration professors, street-level bureaucrats, and on-the-job trainers perform well. We must also recognize where we fall short. And we do fall short by participating in the melee.

Our profession and our programs require self-reflection. Rarely have I heard faculty discuss programmatic successes without boasting. I frequently hear about one’s difficulties with mentally-ill colleagues who target them because of one’s race, gender, research agenda, grading, etc. and how their department and university increase teaching demands and decreasing budgets. Do we raise admission requirements to attract better students? Do we shift focus away from research and toward community service where we work with communities to raise awareness and develop research opportunities? Should we include pedagogy classes in our Ph.D. programs? Do NASPAA requirements need to be updated to reflect these changes? Are we ready for the challenge of a new era in public administration education and service?

We do too much good to shrink from this task.

Author: Dwight Vick is a long-term ASPA member. His email address is [email protected].

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