Phi Beta Cons

What Should Policy Schools Do?

James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley have an excellent, incisive commentary on schools of public policy. These programs, created to bring social science and efficient, nonpartisan administration to government offices, face a host of problems. Their missions have become unclear as fewer and fewer students enter government, their faculty work on problems that are remote from the needs of government workers, and their research is increasingly specialized. The authors quote the former dean of Princeton’s public-affairs school saying that she “doesn’t know anyone in government who would read the academic journals that policy-school professors get rewarded for publishing in,” and while the “need for translation [for lay readers] is ever greater, the rewards for translation in the academy are ever smaller.”

But their most telling criticism comes here:

The mission of [schools of public policy] began to change in the 1970s, when the Ford Foundation issued multimillion-dollar grants to eight universities, including Yale, Duke, and the University of Michigan. According to Graham Allison, writing in 2006 in the Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, the new cadre of students needed to be versed in not only “budgetary cost and efficacy” but also “social equity, civil rights, and quality of life.” People who were concerned with intragovernmental relations and American federalism began to seem “old and crusty,” DiIulio says. Now the goals of these schools were to dream up ways to “make the world a better place.”

The old goal of running an efficient government was not enough for students who want to “make the world a better place.” Figuring out how to run the snowplows efficiently in a small town (one of Piereson and Riley’s examples) is out; tackling “climate change, demography, budget problems, terrorism, extremism, and partisanship” is in.

It’s all well and good to bring a broad, learned perspective to policy questions — indeed, for years ACTA has advocated for core liberal-arts disciplines in college curricula.  Similar but more advanced studies would surely be useful to a master’s student in public policy. But policy programs have gone too far, neglecting the nuts and bolts of public administration that they exist to teach.

In ACTA’s work, we’ve seen a similar issue in undergraduate curricula. Many professors are more excited to teach niche courses in their research interests than the mainstream courses that students need. Students, in turn, don’t think they need foundational courses — and they often prefer The Cultural Politics of Lady Gaga to the American Founding, anyway. As a result, they graduate with big gaps in their knowledge

The heart of the problem is that students and professors underestimate the value of their own work. Students who (at age 23) insist on tackling “bigger” problems than those of their local police department or FDA office probably don’t have a lot of respect for the day-to-day work of policemen or food inspectors. When those same students graduate and enter respectable jobs that need to be done but lack the heady glamour of their Ivory Tower training, it is easy to see why they may be unprepared for their jobs.

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