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The Value Research of Research in 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 Ford
April 9, 2018

Every spring semester, I pass out a sample of peer-reviewed public administration journals to my analytic methods students. My goal is to familiarize them with the format of published academic research. Inevitably an audible groan emanates through the room. Why? My students are successful practitioners with a healthy skepticism of research whose format, contents and conclusions are often detached from practice. I find that skepticism about research in practitioner-focused programs extends, at-times, to university administrators eager to increase teaching loads to reduce the costs of producing job ready graduates. But research is, I argue, a valuable tool for practitioner-focused MPA programs.

First, conducting research makes MPA faculty better teachers. There is the obvious benefit of publishing in pedagogical journals like the Journal of Public Affairs Education, but I find lessons from my own lines of research on governance dynamics informs much of what I teach. Regular publishing also forces faculty members to stay engaged with current trends and findings, preventing the teaching of outdated and/or disproven material. Presenting research at conferences, like ASPA, exposes faculty members to what the top scholars in our areas of expertise are studying. I personally learned more about the issues facing smaller municipalities, for which many of my students work, at a single ASPA session than from any prominent public administration textbook.

Second, research attracts students to our programs. No, it is not because potential mid-service MPA students are poring over peer-reviewed journals in their spare time, but it is high-quality research that gets MPA faculty invited to present to professional associations. Getting in front of such groups demonstrates that a program is populated with faculty that are conducting, and disseminating, research relevant to practice. Conducting quality local research relevant to practice, a traditional strength of practitioner-focused MPA programs, also demonstrates the potential value-add of a MPA degree to future students.

Third, research active faculty make practitioner-focused MPA programs tangible community assets. How so? For one, active faculty collaborate with local agencies on applied research projects that provide value to both the agency and the researcher. The researcher moves up in the academy, while the agency obtains free support and evidence-based advice that improves practice. In addition, research-active MPA departments become a source of on-demand expertise for local government and nonprofit agencies. For example, in my department we consistently field requests for advice regarding board governance, human resource strategies, policy analysis and program evaluation, and municipal finance. I know from my discussions with colleagues across the country that they too field such requests. Though most of this work does not show up on a CV, it is a way research active MPA faculty contribute to the quality of governance in their communities daily.

Finally, research active MPA faculty improve the reputation of their programs in the eyes of both practitioners and fellow academics. Creating a positive reputation has several positive snowballing effects. First, it attracts quality faculty to places that might be a bit off the beaten path. The academic labor market is fluid, and a proven track record within a MPA department helps to attract and retain high-impact junior faculty. A good reputation as an active program also creates more opportunities for graduate students to engage in research with faculty, and to play a hands-on role in research partnerships between academics and agencies. Such experience is particularly valuable for early-career or pre-service students building their resumes. Lastly, a reputation for high research activity can enable practitioner-focused programs to expand the market for their online offerings. All else being equal, students choosing between two online programs will likely choose the program with more prominent faculty. To put it another way, faculty research activity can and should be a marketing tool for online programs.

Generally, I find the practical value of academic research, even in applied fields like public administration, is poorly understood by those outside the academy. Though there are certainly many reasons for this disconnect (and notable exceptions), those of us in academia should be proactive in communicating why research matters to anyone that will listen, i.e. students, media, policymakers, local government leaders, and of course each other. A tertiary review of MPA program websites demonstrates that a large percentage of programs are educating practitioners rather than future academics. As higher education is changing in ways that prioritizes programs with clear career pathways, the practitioner-focused nature of the MPA degree is a real asset. But research will still matter, and research active faculty members are a necessary component of a quality practitioner-focused MPA program.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He has published over two-dozen academic articles on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. Prior to joining academia, Michael worked for many years on education policy in Wisconsin.

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