Should AICP grant credentials to experienced faculty?

One of my wonderful students sent me this link from Cyburbia about AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) willingness to grant tenured faculty an AICP credential. Rebecca Retzlaff and Stuart Meck take up the question in this contribution from Planetizen. They use some fightin’ words:


What a fraud and insult this proposal represents to the hard-working planners who have dutifully followed the rules, gotten their education and experience, and have taken and passed the certification examination (and for the planning faculty who did likewise)!

On Cyburbia there’s a lot of grousing on the part of some who are quick to throw poo around the monkey cage: the comments about “just” having your “Piled, Higher and Deeper”, in addition to complaining about how universities would never grant me a PhD “despite my years and years of experience” and how having a PhD is no guarantee of experience.

Hmmmm. If getting tenure at a university is such an easy and dues-paying-free way to get “AICP” after your name, go right ahead and try that route. Steal that nifty credential through the backdoor means of a fast-and-easy academic career. Then please report back to the rest of us on how that worked out for you.

It reminds me a little of one my architecture colleagues from VT who, encountering me writing at a coffee shop during the summer, said, “I wish I could take summers off like that.” Because, in his experience, paper writing was something that took three hours the night before the paper is due in Western Civ—not writing that occurred after you secured a half million in funding from NSF, conducted 300+ interviews over the course of two years, transcribed them, coded them, and analyzed them only then to start drafting something that will go through an extensive peer review process, with the final publication being version number 11 or so. Different worlds: when I draw something, it’s a doodle. Not work.

I’m not saying that attaining an AICP through the standard route is easy–far from it.

But the policy covers tenured professors. Tenured. I was relatively a fast PhD at four years from start to finish in grad school. Four years. Then tenure: five years of hard work on planning research projects after that. We can argue that practice experience and research/teaching experience are not commensurate, but why answering phones in a zoning office is all-that-much-more-valuable to the world of planning than developing new insights into cities is a bit beyond me. Even if you do believe that 10 seconds spent inside a “real planning job”, no matter how prosaic, is more significant than 10 years in the academy, please let’s refrain from acting like people who have worked hard enough to earn a PhD and tenure haven’t done anything with their lives. There’s an unbelievable amount of vetting that goes into tenure.

And please spare us all the “I had a dumb professor once who didn’t know a thing about the hard knocks of my planning life” anecdotes that prove nothing other than the speaker’s willingness to generalize from a cherrypicked example. (As in, you had a bad professor once. Wow. What about all the other professors you had, or the 4000+ you didn’t? All the same as the one you’re focussing on? And your deep insights on what he or she knew were gathered on what? One thing he said once? That’s fair.)

I don’t know why faculty aren’t expected to take the exam for the credential. That seems counterproductive. I suspect it’s because they know full well many faculty wouldn’t bother with dealing with the exam. It’s extra work, and I live in a world where my association with planning is already tantamount to having cooties–i.e., I’m in a policy school dominated by economists and quantitative political scientists who think planning is shorthand for “lousy social science,” all they hear in a conversation about how planning might be different from their discipline is “blah blah blah blah blah planning isn’t as good as my discipline because it’s different blah blah blah blah,” and, since they are in the majority, they define the consensus position about what is valuable, true, and prestigious and what isn’t in our little corner of the academic hothouse (and to them planning is none of the aforementioned, unless the planning is done by economists. Then planning is all Very Important, and Much More Valuable and Effective than if done by planners.) So nothing that increases my association with practitioners in my profession is a positive for me professionally.

The AICP policy strikes me as a strategy to raise the profile of AICP within universities, and to have more influence and dialogue with faculty within universities that are like me: people who are engaged in a career trajectory that seldom touches on planning practice because it’s not terribly relevant to the incentives and culture we face within the university. And we should be worried about planning’s relevancy in the academy more generally. I strongly suspect that in 50 years, academic planning (unless we are very very careful and very strategic) will be swallowed by architecture, civil engineering, and public health. Raising the professional distinctions between planners and the rest of those folks strikes me as a worthy strategy, though I am not sure that AICP designation is the way to do that. And given the perpetual weakness of planners in the academy, maybe it would be fine for the discipline to disappear.

Second, the complaint from Cyburbia that universities don’t grant a PhD for many years of experience is true, but it’s also rather irrelevant in ways that Stuart Meck himself embodies. I zipped off to look at his cv, and he does not have a PhD. He is instead an accomplished practitioner with a B.A. and M.A. in Journalism and Master of City Planning, The Ohio State University; M.B.A., Wright State University–great credentials for doing what he’s doing at Rutgers. Plenty of academic planning programs want great practitioners to teach. But not every practitioner with a bloated sense of the value of their war stories for the young is a great teacher. Yeah, you might be locked out of academic job because you don’t have your Piled Higher and Deeper. Or you might be locked out because you’re not as interesting or as accomplished as you think.

This is all by way of saying I think this kerfuffle doesn’t really matter, it’s not a grand insult or a fraud, and nobody is taking anything away from practitioners who have distinguished themselves with the credential: how many tenured professors are going to use the AICP certification to quit their university job (which, after all, is a life of complete and utter ease) to compete for the staff jobs that are asking for AICP certification? And how many planning directors would hire them if they did? I knew this one dumb planning director once…