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…

6 thoughts on “Should AICP grant credentials to experienced faculty?

  1. “And we should be worried about planning’s relevancy in the academy more generally.”

    It’s my understanding that the offer of AICP certification applies to any tenured faculty associated with a planning program, which could include all the fields you mention plus many more. Does granting AICP to a tenured professor in forestry dilute or secure the profession? I’m not trying to be snarky, I genuinely think this requires more conversation about how our community wants to define “certified planner”.

    Undoubtedly tenured faculty work as hard (usually harder) than practicing planners in their jobs. But “planning” research takes many forms. Some is very similar to what a practicing planner might experience – conducting public meetings, surveys, analyzing community trends, etc. But some is very different.

  2. But if they are still located in a planning program, I think that is sufficient to make that point that planning is a separate field (with the certification.) I’m not sure. But you know, plenty of planning jobs require a master’s in planning or a related field. So the dilution–I’d prefer the word diversity–in the field happens on the professional side as well.

    • True, but AICP-certified practicing planners all share 1) the fact that they have passed the test and 2) relevant experience as a planner (as defined by AICP). Their degree doesn’t change that. Under the proposal, AICP-certified faculty all share 1) that they have tenure and 2) that they teach some number of courses that are considered eligible for credit in a PAB-accredited planning program.

      When I was at planning school, I could have taken courses in natural resources science, traffic management, advanced econ, law, etc. I wouldn’t consider that many of the professors who taught those courses shared my “profession”, not because they didn’t work hard enough or pass a dumb test, but because their backgrounds and experience and not sufficiently shared with other “planners”.

      If AICP wants to encourage more involvement from academia in planning conferences and more interaction with joe planner (as I think they should), I don’t think this is the way to do it. How about looking at requirements for PAB-certification and putting more weight on community service or interaction or conference attendance or some other proxy for face-to-face meetings between academics and practitioners?

  3. Let’s be honest. Why do most planners get their AICP? To try and beef up their credentials to get higher pay or a management position (which also gives you higher pay). I don’t think an AICP will get any academic anymore pay. If you’re trying to become an adjunct faculty member an AICP might make you look more credible on paper.

    What do most city planners do at a private firm or city? (key word here being MOST) The same thing over and over. Traffic study for this intersection. Review this consultants study here. Write this agenda item (that follows this template) for a council meeting. Conduct an a AA, which requires you to have all these components, etc. Work the front desk. Write this grant which requires X letters of support, Y cost estimation, in Z format.

    Most of the everyday planners work is pretty….boring. And once you get an AICP, its not like you have a free pass to be creative and innovative (because that won’t get you a raise either), you’re still responsible for doing boring planning work.

    And if anything innovative is done at a city level, its typically because some academic did some research on the idea first, or validates that idea from someone else who did it in some other city.

    Almost every city will prefer to play it safe, and that requires the staff to play it safe, which makes planning boring. At least the academics get to push the envelope, and even if the academic that publishes some great idea isn’t an AICP….the city that implements that academic’s idea won’t care if that academic has an AICP.

    If planning want’s to stay relevant it needs to stop settling for “good enough” and aim for “f*ckin amazing”

  4. Ok, so according to your logic, a person with a degree in geography who works in a planning office for six years doing land use mapping and long-term visioning and passes the test is a compatriot, but a geography PhD who works on a planning faculty long enough to get tenure (usually 5 years or more) studying and making contributions to the knowledge of land use or food systems does not have a shared background with you. So that means Don Shoup, even though he passed the AICP exam, doesn’t get to be an AICP because he’s an economist teaching in a planning program and that means he isn’t sufficiently analogous to you in order to hold the same credential.

    It’s not about who works hard–I’m just tired of people acting like giving a planning credential to planning faculty who have demonstrated merit within the academy is like handing out the credential to some random group of yahoos we found on a street corner. My grandma worked hard as an elementary school teacher, and I don’t’ think she merits an AICP.

    I’m not convinced by your argument because it tries to do what planning always runs aground on: defining the profession in terms of content. And, again, your problem reflect diversity in practice as well as in the profession. In practice, what do traffic forecasters have in common with community development advocates? What do folks developing farmer’s markets have in common with water planning? Sure, they are all interested in the future and the city, and all systems are all connected to everything else, and….there we slide into the never-ending morass that defining a field that has defied definition for nearly 100 years.

    • I guess I see a difference between contributing to the field of planning (as geographers and Don Shoup do) and being a planner (which many faculty don’t, can’t or don’t want to). Does Don Shoup define himself as a planner? I’m not sure. I know a lot of economists at my local planning school wouldn’t. I personally tend to identify planners as I do pornography (I know it when you see it), but I know that’s not good enough for AICP/APA. Who are the “planning faculty” you reference? There are tons of great, smart, hardworking professors in Communications, Program Evaluation, and Social Services (all areas of teaching identified by AICP: http://www.planning.org/certification/experience.htm), that have probably contributed to the field, but are they planners? I view planning as a necessarily interdiscplinary field. Many who contribute ideas to the field of planning study and practice in a very uni-disciplinary fashion. Are they planners? If we want AICP to be recognizable and meaningful, where do we draw the boundaries? If not based on content, then what?

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