It’s long past time undergrad policy and planning degrees stopped being “gut” or “jock” majors

Are there any universities where policy and planning undergraduate majors aren’t treated like “gut” or “jock” degrees?

Now, before anybody yells at me, there are plenty of jocks who do really well in school and are very smart. I just used the term because it’s a term of common currency to describe “majors that let you graduate even if you are not particularly good at what you do.”

This is not ok in policy and planning, and yet, I think it’s fairly common for undergraduate majors across universities.

Why am I thinking about this? Well, I innocently asked on Facebook a question about how much one ought to fiddle grades upwards. I have no idea whether the problem was a glitch in reading comprehension or what, but I got people telling me not to grade downward even if I thought the student didn’t deserve a better grade (I don’t; who does? The score is the score, and for all the incompetencies a student may show, I’m pretty convinced they can figure their grades, so any fudging downward would get noticed and invite a shitstorm, and quickly) and that I should allow resubmits and ‘be lenient.’

I get that people think they are being nice when they pass incompetent performers along and give chance after chance. I must admit, I see very little “nice” about the former. The latter, I don’t have as much trouble with. If somebody keeps resubmitting until the work is right, then I’m ok. Mostly, I see how the former makes an individual professor’s life easier because there is far less grade grubbing and whining about you to the powers that be. But it doesn’t strike me as particularly nice in the world outside of your relationship with one student.

My reasons:

1. The working degrees in policy and planning tend to be *graduate* degrees. That means you have to go to graduate school in order to get a job and/or move up the ladder. In some universes, the working degree is becoming the PhD. Your shitty undergrad performance with a policy degree is,thus, just that, and little more, and won’t open the doors you need opened.

Letting low-interest, low-performing, low-commitment students stay untrained and unchallenged just so they can finish in policy can boil down to taking their money for a dead-end degree. That doesn’t strike me as being nice.

I strongly suspect that a lot of the disciplinary scholars teaching in policy schools see policy degrees as “junk” compared to their own, exalted, wonderful disciplinary degrees, and so they assume their graduate students will come from “real” undergrad disciplines, like their own. Moral hazard. You shouldn’t be teaching in degree programs you don’t believe are worthy endeavors in their own right.

2. There are really, really, really smart, motivated, disciplined students who are passionate about planning and public policy, and they deserve the very best education they can get and to be treated with the same respect as the smart people in other fields.

Failing to maintain standards that actually reflect what these smart, passionate, and motivated students can do, and granting them the same qualification as incompetent, lazy, feckless, “I’m doing this because I couldn’t cut it in the B-School/EngineeringSchool/Architecture program” is a betrayal of the talent, effort, and desire to do topnotch work I routinely see in the best students of public policy and planning.

3. Weeder classes can actually do individuals and families a favor by helping students figure out how much they really want to do something.

Our commencement speaker noted that he took and failed the SAT four times. That tells me two things. First, he really really didn’t want to study for that SAT. And second, he still wanted what the SAT promised him: admission to a college so that he could play football. Eventually, the latter won, he settled down and started studying for the SAT, and got to follow the rest of his dream.

Bingo. Sitting down and taking that test a fifth time had to hurt like a mother. But he did it because it was part of doing something he dreamed of and he’d had to learn to suck it up, the same way he sucked up running sprints and whatever else he needed to suck up to excel at football.

If you don’t care about public policy and planning enough to study, to read in the field, and to hone whatever skills people tell you you need in order to advance in the field, then you sure as shit do not want to do the job the rest of your life, and you/your parents shouldn’t be paying for that training. Sure, some university will take your money even if you are schlumping ignominiously through, but you shouldn’t part with your money under those conditions. Go find whatever it is you like doing enough to make genuine sacrifices for it.

Can’t get into the snooty b-school of your dreams? Keep honing your cv and keep applying. Or start your business anyway and make those bastards eat not admitting you. Enjoy telling them that you would give them an endowed chair but you don’t think they are qualified to use your cash at this time. Don’t just slide into a second choice slipstream and muddle there because you have neither interest nor aptitude. That’s the road to really, truly useless student debt you will regret for a very long time.

If you do that, you are competing, in your unhappy condition, with all the people who, like me and plenty of little nerds like me, dreamed about being analysts at Brookings and the Fed, etc etc because they think public policy is *important.* There are some of us who get up in the morning to think about cities and human society. There are, believe it or not, some of us in this field who, like the drummer who practices until his hands bleed, will think about politics, policy, and planning until we freaking drop.

These kind of people, even if they don’t have all the aptitude in the world, will keep trying to get into those elite policy and planning circles long after you have washed out into some dead-end zoning enforcement job where your best out will be getting your real estate license (and all that’s fine, I’m not judging, you can make a good and honorable living doing that, but I am noting that you didn’t need boatloads of tuition and student debt to go in that direction in the first place.)

4. Incompetent and unethical public policy, planning, management, and development kills and immiserates people.

There are standards, the people who know what they are doing know and enforce these standards, and anything short of that is not ok. Yes, policy formulation and analysis are often subjective, impressionistic fields compared to “hard” science. Too bad. Excellence is still the goal, and anybody in the “public” professions should see accepting mediocrity in public service as a death of sorts.

If any undergrad cheats in my class I bust them all the way the hell down. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, committed a lot of sins. I understand that a good person can do the wrong thing. But I also want to make sure that good people think twice before doing the wrong thing again. In my undergraduate classes, I have people who will a) be building buildings; b) managing health care services; c) representing government agencies and dealing with vulnerable people. I don’t want real estate developers who think a “cost-saver” by swapping promised materials for cheaper materials is ever ok just because most of the time, it doesn’t matter. It does matter when the Level 7 earthquake hits and that building has people in it. I don’t want health services managers who are going to harvest organs illegally and take bribes to move people around on recipient lists or who cover up for surgeons who do the wrong thing. I don’t want public administrators who decide it’s ok not to maintain roads in “certain parts of town” or that they can vote themselves lavish pay raises in immigrant communities powerless to stop them (Bell) or who stick their fingers into housing voucher money to steal from both taxpayers and poor people.

What we do matters to people, and of all the people to whom it matters, those without power need these competencies and standards the most, to be used in their service, for their goals. There is a giant, screeching dialogue out there that says public service doesn’t matter, that “the government” never does anything but hurt people and that there is no such thing as a “public.” Believing in that dialogue is, as far as I am concerned, the fastest way to make it true. And the people willing to engage in public service under that understanding of it are not the people we want there.