Donald Moynihan, br>Professor of Public Affairs
© University of Wisconsin-Madison
Why Policy Schools Really Matter
By Donald Moynihan
If you are a professor (which I am) or student (which I was) at a public policy school, you like to tell yourself that your work, in some small way, bridges academia and the world by offering an analytic approach to solving real-world problems.
Not so, according to a Washington Post op-ed from December 6, The Problem with Policy Schools. Authors Naomi Shafer Reilly, a columnist for the New York Post who writes on the cost of higher education and faith, and James Pierson, Director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University, ask what exactly is the problem. In short: “[T]he field as a whole seems to be having an identity crisis. The schools’ curricula and missions have become at once too broad and too academic, too focused on national and global issues at the expense of local and state-level ones. It’s not clear that the schools are preparing their graduates to fix all that needs fixing.”
Wow, that’s a lot. Take a moment.
This critique would be devastating if it were not so wrong-headed and factually incorrect in so many different ways. Let’s look through some of the most egregious claims in a little more detail.
A central complaint is that graduates of policy schools care not a whit for state and local government. Did you know that only 6% of Harvard graduates go into state or local government? I guess that number was so shocking that the authors felt no need to check if it’s representative of policy school graduates. It’s not. According to a 2012 NASPAA survey of 151 policy schools, 47% of graduates go into government, and more go into state government (15%) and local government (18%) than go into federal service (11%). A very large chunk (26%) also go into the nonprofit world, reflecting the marked shift of public services away from direct government provision and into the hands of private and non-profit contractors. Free-market think-tanks, like the Manhattan Institute, cheered this process. This makes it all the more cynical of Mr. Pierson to imply that the flow of public policy students into the nonprofit world is evidence of a failure of the institutions that trained them.
This tendency to generalize from the experience of Harvard (and Princeton) to all public affairs school is a dominant theme of the op-ed. As an aside, the authors would have benefited from an intro stats class that warns about generalizing from a small N, especially outlier cases. They can find such a class at their local policy school. Did you know policy schools are full of “celebrity instructors? Put away your autograph books though – you are not likely to run into David Gergen outside of Harvard. The more banal truth is that most public affairs programs do use practitioners as low-cost adjuncts, precisely to help students learn about the nuts and bolts of local problems that the authors say policy schools ignore.
Harvard and Princeton can defend their own record. My point is that these institutions are not typical of the public affairs experience, as anyone remotely aware of the field can tell you. It’s incorrect to say that the majority of the 285 policy schools invoked in the op-ed are overly-focused on national and international policy, as the authors suggest. The authors do make some note that other schools exist that might not fit into their caricature, but such places are “the exception” and sniffed at as lacking in prestige. But look at the top 25 of the U.S. News & World Report public affairs rankings; there are plenty of top-ranked institutions with a strong emphasis on state and local government. Some do not, and that is fine: students are better served when policy schools offer real choices in their approach.
The authors also claim that faculty in policy schools are disconnected from practice. This is, again, inaccurate. Many of us write for journals that target practitioners, and work to disseminate our research (even in blogs like this!). We are called on to prepare reports or presentations for public officials, and in every course I teach, students are required to study a real organization or policy problem, preferably working with actual public officials. This is typical of faculty in my school, and with colleagues in other institutions, arising from a very deliberate design: hard-wiring of practice and scholarship into the curriculum.
The authors critique “a renewed zeal for quantitative analysis” in policy schools, even as they bemoan the growing influence of outside interests in policymaking. What alternatives do they have in mind here? A more poorly trained public workforce, unable to read or respond to the well-funded analyses put together by interest groups? In my experience, it is employers who push for credentials in program evaluation, cost-benefit analyses, and statistics, precisely because policymakers need a non-partisan source of analytical skills.
I could go on and on. But I need to explain why this matters. It might seem churlish to be so dismissive were it not plain that the purpose of the critique is not to open a dialogue with policy schools. The target audience is not those who work in policy schools, who can easily rebut the claims made.
No, the real audience is revealed in the first paragraph, where the authors bemoan a gift of $100 million to the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy, and later when they offer the cautionary tale of the family who funded the Wilson School at Princeton, and then asked for their money back.
The authors are speaking to the millionaires and billionaires who are considering securingsome philanthropic legacy by funding public policy education. At a time when state funding of higher education remains stagnant, federal funding for social science research is under constant attack, and student debt is increasing, this has been one of the few areas where a smattering of policy schools have found a new source of revenue, which can support students who enter into public service.
The policy school community, including APPAM, needs to develop not just a robust counter-argument to the type of misrepresentations that were offered in the Post op-ed, but a positive account of why policy schools represent a more meaningful investment in relevant and rigorous research and public service than, for example, clicking on the “donate online” button at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
Donald Moynihan is a Professor of Public Affairs at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Association.