The Problem with Public Policy Schools?

I want to thank John Hulsey for posting this editorial from the Washington Post (  I would have otherwise missed it.

I had a number of quick thoughts and wish that I had the benefit of discussing with Roger Parks and other colleagues and advisors from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs before jotting down my ideas.

It’s worthwhile to first note that the authors are thinktank leaders and longstanding critics of the academy.  However, they raise a number of points worth considering.  Others have started targeting a number of critical flaws in the article (not fully understanding the enterprise of science, pushing a specific political agenda, etc).  I don’t want to continue dissecting the weaknesses of the article, but I would like to focus on a few of the key points that they have (perhaps unwittingly) raised.  Many of these challenges facing policy schools are the very same challenges that have been leveled at business schools for decades as well, and b-schools, in spite of their high profile, still struggle with their role in the academy around these issues.

First, the field of study is so broad, how does a school focus to the level needed to provide its students the depth of understanding required for future success?  At the same time, how does a school provide the broad perspective required for systems-level thinking and understanding.  Where should a program direct its efforts?  Should it directly them topically (environmental policy, public finance, etc) or around core skills needed by all MPA/MPP graduates?  How do the schools develop a common core curriculum?

Second, how does the faculty balance basic and applied research?  Should the work be predominantly applied and focused on real-world solutions and deliverables?  Should it be focused more on traditional science?  (And yes, I understand that science and application may not be in opposition).  If the focus is on more traditional academia outputs, how do professors balance their research with the solutions-oriented training and needs of their (mostly) professional students?

Third, and related to the previous questions, how do policy schools balance different disciplinary perspectives?  Is the program truly interdisciplinary?  Is it dominated by particular perspectives (hard-core quant, case-driven, environmental science labs,…) or disciplines (economics, political science, policy analysts)?

I noted earlier that public policy schools and business schools share in many of these dilemmas.  The same can be said for environmental studies programs and schools of sustainability.  At ASU’s School of Sustainability, we struggle with these issues a great deal.  We orient our program toward use-inspired  research and providing real-world solutions.  However, it remains a perpetual challenge to balance the world of academia with this approach.  We focus on an interdisciplinary approach oriented around skill development and sustainability competencies defined by the faculty as a whole (see Wiek, Arnim, Lauren Withycombe, and Charles L. Redman. “Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development.” Sustainability Science 6.2 (2011): 203-218.).  Much of this revolves around a more holistic approach to science and draws on research in complex adaptive systems.  If that sounds further and further from direct application, I need to explain what this means.  But that’s a topic for another day.


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