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Theory and Practice: The Chicken or The Egg?

By John J. Carroll

Hi, my name is John, and I am an academic [audience response: “Hi John”].  Before I became an academic, I was a practitioner. Yes, I was a full-fledged public sector practitioner for more than 30 years and I exhibit the symptoms of decades of exposure to service to prove it. However, being a practitioner wasn’t enough – I wanted more. I wanted to tell my story to others and help create the knowledge that will someday improve the field. I am not a recovering academic. In fact, I hope with time to become a better academic. But the “Theory and Practice” argument might as well be “The Chicken or The Egg.”

carroll 2As academics (especially former career practitioners), our collective egos would probably like to believe that we are leading the charge from the front to build theory and inform the practice. We are the light that shows the way. We are the font of knowledge for the public sector and nonprofits. In the many hundreds or thousands (seemed like hundreds of thousands) of hours of meetings I spent in the practice, I can never recall a supervisor or manager asking how the theory was informing what we should do next or how academia prepared us for the challenges that face us. Usually, it was this issue or crisis that had to be fixed yesterday; go find someone else who is doing it right and borrow liberally (read: copy) from them. In government, we learned there is no such thing as an original idea. Someone else has already thought of it and struggled through the trial and error (we like to call it, “best practices”).

There are emerging challenges in government all the time. But does the education model keep up? Someone, of course, is doing the thinking and presenting new and improved ideas. Universities go to great lengths to promote their degree programs and education models. For example, I point to this month’s print version of the PA Times’ education supplement, the advertising section for our education model, complete with articles promoting that model. Are we commercializing the market by recruiting, marketing, and selling our product, which is shaped by the demands of the market?  There is plenty of competition between colleges and universities (like rankings and advertising) though they would swear they do not subscribe to it. Yet when the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) held its annual conference last week, this competition was evident.

However, this promotion is telling. The U.S. News and World Report rankings list Syracuse, Indiana, Harvard, Georgia, Princeton, New York University, University of California (Berkeley), University of Southern California, Carnegie Mellon, Kansas, and American University as the best graduate programs in public affairs from among 266 programs reviewed. It is also quite clear that this list is also a “who’s who” of the best universities in the nation. Other great universities were also closely ranked. Many programs have attracted substantial donations to name the school or endowed chairs – all to increase the visibility and reputation of their programs. For example, Boston real estate developer and former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt recently donated $100 million to place his name on the Public Affairs School at Georgetown University. Now, that is an investment!

Norma Ricucci’s outstanding book, Public Administration: Traditions of Inquiry and Philosophies of Knowledge, discusses the continuous debate by scholars in how we approach knowledge in the discipline. I wish I had this book available to me before I took my comps! One thing is for sure, academics love to debate what the meaning of “is” is. Our continuous and varied debates about pursuing knowledge in this discipline are evident in the education model.

carroll 1The master of public administration (MPA) is supposed to be the combination of theory and practice. There are core courses and specializations, joint degrees with other programs, and a host of other options. MPA programs are as varied as the units of government that serve the public. They vary in size and focus and target audience. There are state schools, not for profit, and for profit schools. There are different platforms available to give students access to the programs.

How does accreditation come into play? At the NASPAA conference last week, I learned there are approximately 170 accredited programs. The conference was about the importance of education staying current and their five “universal competencies” that form the basis of the accreditation. Agree or disagree, NASPAA has a strong tilt toward the logic model, strategic planning, and diversity – all evident in the practice too.

Contributing to this mix are a host of other local, state and national associations (such as the International City/County Management Association or the International Association of Fire Chiefs) as well as labor unions and professional organizations (for example, the American Society for Public Administration or the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management) for every field. Along with state licensing, the public sector has its own accrediting bodies, such as the Government Finance Officers Association and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

We are looking beyond our national borders to take our programs to other countries.  Our discipline is clearly acknowledging globalization and the international nature of the MPA. We are exporting our uniquely American model to other nations, especially China. I find it interesting that a nation with over 3,000 years of civilization and a very different governing model actively turns to our academy for knowledge.

The “theory and practice” argument is an academic one and should be. We have a responsibility as academics to help inform the practice through useful education models, meaningful research, and service of our own. So which should come first, the chicken or the egg? Does it really matter? Either way, education is how one grows. My peers in the practice cited me for being over-educated. Yet, it was my graduate and academic credentials that comprised my practitioner toolbox – a toolbox often used in the course of my work. I remain very biased in my belief of the additional strengths one brings to an organization with an education. To me, the importance of the getting the education outweighs who came first.

John J. Carroll, Ph.D., MPA is an assistant professor for public administration at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Carroll entered academia in 2010 after more than 30 years of public service. He can be reached at [email protected].

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