The real problems of policy schools

Attention Conservation Notice: Policy schools have a bunch of problems, but the WashPo writers missed or mischaracterized most of them.

Additional note: for some reason, my ability to proofread today appears to be more in the toilet than usual. A thousand apologies. I’ll keep editing for clarity.

So this op-ed from the Washington Post has been making the rounds, and it’s irritating me a great deal, largely because one of the authors, Naomi Schaefer Riley, just bothers me. Everything she ever published in the WSJ set my teeth on edge, so I am hardly an unbiased reader–my fault, not hers. This piece is a larger echo of her other complaints about universities writ large, except she’s not complaining about tenure (which, as I explained yesterday, is a bit like worrying about Bigfoot at this point; tenure has eroded, and it’s about a millionth as important as people like Riley like to make it.) Their critique comes down to:

1. An overemphasis on global and national problems rather than state and local;

2. Academic research has little to say about day-to-day management problems of government (I’m going to have to break this gently to my public management colleagues, as they spend all their time worrying about the institutional problems that lead to and/or resolve day-to-day management problems), particularly in the over-emphasis on economics.

3. These schools aren’t training people to go into government (only a small percentage of Kennedy school grads go to state and local government), etc:

4. And these schools are a mishmash of home disciplines which causes an identity crisis:

Many schools have begun to look like a mishmash of the academic departments from which their faculty members hail — such as political science, economics and sociology. But those people may have no more or less interest than colleagues from their home departments in shaping actual policy. Of course, many of these schools draw at least some faculty members from politicians who have lost elections or wonks whose parties are out of power in Washington. But such celebrity instructors are short-timers and do little to draw the academic faculty — which dominate the schools — out of their bubbles.

Easiest potshot in the world: those academics and their bubbles.

There are shades of truth in all these, but these are problems to be found just about everywhere in governance and politics. There is an overemphasis, for example, on national and global issues in the media. Universities emphasize scholars that can demonstrate “high impact” and that means attaining federal grants, getting hits in the highest impact journals, getting picked up by national media. “I helped make main street in Schlubbville more vibrant and walkable” is nice, but it is not going to get you promoted in most major research universities.

And that is actually the problem with this op-ed. They are far too focussed on treating the east coast schools like the Kennedy School and Woodrow Wilson as what’s out there for policy schools. So, in no particular order, here are the first few reasons why this emphasis leads them astray:

1. They conflate public policy and public management, and while these topics are related, they are not the same thing. Public policy tends to be general and focussed on content areas, public management tends to focus on institutions and individuals who enact policy (and my field, planning).

2. The highest ranked public policy schools are not always the highest ranked public management schools. USC has hired on a bunch of folks who study the federal bureaucracy, but plenty study state and city management as well. But they are not likely to be found in the brand name policy schools like Kennedy, Woodrow Wilson or even Taubmann.

3. Public policy and public management graduates often do not end up in the same jobs, though sometimes they do, and training public managers is a different smoke than the 1970s version these folks seem to think it is. Even though we are all supposed to lay awake nights worrying about gummint employees, the number of people in the federal bureaucracy has remained largely the same since 1962, and is smaller now than it was then. Managerial jobs at the state and local level, which is what these writers seem to be worried about–employs a much larger percentage of people, but the actual numbers of ranked positions open has gone down even as employment in the sector has gone up–many are field positions rather than managerial positions: Driving snow plows, walking a beat, teaching 3rd graders. In the mean time, nongovernmental employment for many policy grads (and for many public management grads) has emerged as an important part of the labor force: with the push to privatization, many managers in state and local governments are basically contract managers for experts housed in private consulting firms. Or, alternatively, many have moved into the nonprofit sector. So that idea that policy and management schools should be producing experts for government is not necessarily correct–it’s only a part of the labor market. Many of our policy grads go work for politicians; they are staffers for particular people rather than managers for public institutions.

So that’s the problem with their assumptions in my read.

My problems with policy schools in no particular order:

1. They are housed in very expensive, very exclusive, very elite private schools. This is not, as I said, true of public management programs, where places like Virginia Tech, Texas A & M, and Indiana have shined. But it policy schools are in the expensive privates, which reinforces a cycle of affluent families sending students to Ivies where they then funnel into positions of influence in politics and public policy. The authors of the op-ed lump Brandeis, Wilson, and Dewey together, but these men held very different views on how to manage complex problems. In Dewey’s case, it wasn’t to set up elite teams of experts; Dewey treated democracy as a method in epistemology that could and should be used to inform policy in the public interest.

2. This problem means that policy schools are not intellectually diverse, nor are they likely to be socio-demographically diverse, and those two problems commingle. You can’t swing a shovel without hitting a million old white dudes who want to tell you all about their public policy expertise. And it’s fine to have them represented, but they don’t need to be the only people in Congress, in the bureaucracy, on the TV and on book covers.

This isn’t some politically correct plea for diversity for its own sake, though I do think diversity for its own sake has a great deal to recommend it. Instead, it’s a Deweyan imperative for governing cosmopolitan cities, states, and nations via democracy.

I’m not likely to cry too many tears over conservatives who complain that there aren’t enough conservative proffies in policy schools (see the straight line between and elite university and the American Enterprise Institute noted in the op-ed). There are plenty of cozy relationships between universities and both right and left wing think tanks (a growing labor market for our graduates) even if the average professor is likely to be Democrat. But ones that espouse particular conservative ideologies hit the lottery: Condoleeza Rice, Greg Mankiw, Milton Friedmann, etc etc. The reality is, there are few true radicals in either direction on most policy school faculties because social science doesn’t lend itself to radical or reactionary positions (one of the advantages of the social sciences, actually).

3. But that’s a problem, too: these programs are completely dominated by social scientists and lawyers who act like social scientists, and in particular, economists. The infighting between economists and political scientists and sociologists is entertaining to those of us who actually hold policy-related, multidisciplinary PhDs, but it’s less interesting that the larger problem of: don’t the humanities and sciences also inform policy? And they do; they just do so from departments rather than policy schools. Bioethics is a big deal for public policy, but few policy schools have bioethicists. Med schools do. So do philosophy departments. So do religion departments. The attempts among social scientists to exclude such explicitly normative considerations from public policy schools leads to inherent dysfunction and arbitrary limits because of the nature of the beast–public policy and its roots in the ‘public interest’–are inherently normative. The tendency to draw a strict line between public policy and things like bioethics seems founded more in disciplinary allegiances than defensible in terms of relevance to public policy.

Which gets me to a much more serious identity problem for policy schools; the line between what is and what is not public policy. If we do take Dewey seriously, we must get to a point of believing that the entire university is called to the betterment of human society in such a way that the arts and sciences inform public as well as individual life within that public. There is also a less abstract problem: technology, commerce, and cultural questions tends to get less attention in public policy schools than their actual importance to public policy would merit as technology is viewed as the purview of the sciences and engineering, commerce the purview of business schools, and culture the purview of the liberal arts.

Leo Strauss noted that political science has not done much to stop political conflict. Whenever I read op-eds like this one and get me to thinking about where policy belongs in intellectual life, I always go back to John Henry Newman:

Reflect, Gentlemen, how many disputes you must have listened to, which were interminable, because neither party understood either his opponent or himself. Consider the fortunes of an argument in a debating society, and the need there so frequently is, not simply of some clear thinker to disentangle the perplexities of thought, but of capacity in the combatants to do justice to the clearest explanations which are set before them,—so much so, that the luminous arbitration only gives rise, perhaps, to more hopeless altercation.