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United States Schools of Public Policy Should Operate as Professional Schools Rather than as Pseudo Think Tanks

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

By Erik Devereux
August 2, 2020

This is the third of four columns I will write in 2020 about the current state of United States schools of public policy. The first column makes the case for significant reform if the schools are to thrive in the 21st century. The second column examines the potential for the schools to develop a separate discipline of policy analysis that goes well beyond microeconomics. This column advocates for moving to corporate governance of the curriculum. If you are interested in more about corporate governance than I can include here, please email me at the address below and I will send you a more detailed document.

Currently, few United States policy schools govern their curricula in a manner commensurate with offering professional education. Instead, most schools practice individual governance of curriculum content as if they were social science departments. As a legacy of how the schools were built, individual governance of the curriculum reflects the desire of the faculty to function more as public intellectuals at think tanks than as the stewards of a corporate enterprise in service to a larger profession. The table accompanying this column contrasts individual and corporate governance of the curriculum. In the interest of space, I will focus here on the elements of corporate governance and why it is a hallmark of professional education.

The primary goal of corporate governance of the curriculum is to develop and sustain a well-defined educational brand for a professional school that does not depend on the good will or presence of specific faculty in the classroom. If you question this, imagine what it would mean for the curriculum of a medical school to depend on which faculty were available to teach surgery. If you want to raise issues of academic freedom, my response is that those issues are minimal when it comes to the core courses of the MPA or MPP. Instead, the school has a responsibility to deliver the highest quality content to each cohort of professional students regardless of individual faculty preferences about that content. The metric for “highest quality content” must be defined in terms of the needs of the professions into which a program’s graduates are hired.

Corporate governance does not mean the faculty lose control over teaching. Rather, it means that the faculty collectively determine what content belongs in each course, collectively manage course syllabi and collectively review and improve courses on a regular schedule. Through this collective responsibility for the professional degree program, the faculty ensure that each student cohort will receive approximately the same education regardless of which professor teaches each course (especially in the program core). Another benefit of corporate governance is that newly hired faculty face a vastly reduced burden of preparing to teach when there is an existing curriculum that has the full endorsement of the school. Assistant professors hired into policy schools often are assigned to teach courses for which they struggle to develop syllabi on their own and otherwise master the responsibilities related to teaching. If the policy schools want to support the success of their junior faculty, corporate governance is a systemic improvement.

I conclude with examining why it is that the policy schools have been allowed to use individual governance of their curricula. There are two reasons for why the schools are so distinctly unprofessional. First, their central administrations generally have left them alone provided they succeeded financially and otherwise did not “rock the boat” on campus. Another name for this is benign neglect of the units on campus that are not considered “first tier.” Second, the policy schools collectively have regulated themselves through trade associations that have no means for forcing systemic reforms. While I am sympathetic to those who favor voluntary or self-regulation, the history of that approach does not recommend it in this case. As indicated in the prior two columns, I am deeply concerned about the future of the policy schools if they do not embrace their responsibilities as professional schools amidst the shifting dynamics on college campuses. While this certainly will dismay the faculty members who certainly have enjoyed the individual benefits, the era of the pseudo think tank disguised as a professional school should end.


Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected] Twitter: @eadevereux.

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