Reflecting On Tenure After Six Years in PA

Well, assuming the board of regents approved it, it appears I earned tenure and promotion from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Tenure seemed like such a far-off concept when I started, yet I here I am. It feels good, and I am hopeful achieving it will enable me to focus on some longer-term projects, and participate more fully in department and university business. So now that I am here, what have I learned?

First, that everyone’s journey to academia is unique. After six years of getting to know other professors I still feel like a bit of an outlier. I did not get somebody else to pay for my grad school. I completed an interdisciplinary Ph.D. I worked a demanding full-time job throughout graduate school with a family. I placed pretty strict geographical restrictions on where I could go. But it worked out. And I know I am not the only one that feels like a bit of an outlier; I think most do at one time or another. There is no one path to this career.

Second, I realize just how ignorant I was to the profession when I began. I had no idea what a 3-3 actually was, or that it was considered a heavy teaching load. The publication process was also pretty foreign to me. I did not know what an impact factor was or why it mattered. My ignorance is on me. I never knew any academics outside of the classroom, never had time to socialize with other graduate students, and I did not ask questions when I could have. Why? I was busy and I did not want to appear stupid.

Third, I knew (and know) even less about the job market. After a couple of years and a good number of publications, I was encouraged to test the job market. But when I did, I could not get interviews anywhere. I felt unwanted, and admit being somewhat hurt and confused by it. But honestly, it motivated me to get busy. To keep publishing, to keep improving my teaching, to keep taking chances, and to spend everyday trying to make the positive impact I wanted to make. I also learned to fully appreciate being at the institution that was willing to take the chance of granting me an interview in the first place. If you follow my blog at all you know things are tough resource-wise at Oshkosh, but it is a great place where great things are possible. It is home. My advice to junior faculty is to not fall into the trap of letting your institution define your work, or of letting your success be a function of anybody else’s goals.

Fourth, that I got a lot of help. My Ph.D. adviser taught me to be positive, to be productive, to let my work speak for itself, and most importantly modeled how to treat people. Be kind, be positive, and realize it is not all about work. My students teach me everyday about new aspects of PA, and how we can bridge the academic practitioner-divide. My colleagues have exposed me to parts of PA that I did not know exist, and showed me that there are places in this profession where I will not feel like an outsider.

Fifth, and really the one that brings it all together, is I learned that I had to make my own place in PA. Few if any simply get invited to the table, sometimes you have to push your way in. How? My approach was to try everything. This strategy has given me opportunities to participate in fulfilling funded scholarly activities in Lubbock, Seattle, Ottawa, Calgary, D.C. (over and over), and Indianapolis. It has given me a voice as a PA Times columnist and MPAC representative. It has helped me meet new friends and research partners. It has expanded the scope of my research in ways I never imagined. It has helped me get my work, and ideas, in front of practitioners, legislators, and the general public in ways I never imagined six years ago.

In short, I feel good that I am making my place and my impact in the ways I know how. I am thankful to have this career, these networks, and the chance to be a positive welcoming voice in PA.

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Musings on Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion. We discuss these topics in the classroom, in our politics, and in our homes. They are vague buzzwords that are easy to say, but more difficult to explain, and even more difficult to realize. Some may find these topics to be threatening. Diversity and inclusion sound good in concept, but does their pursuit mean change, and does change mean loss of something one has worked hard for? Some in positions of power may find discussion of these topics to be accusatory. Does calling for more diversity imply that I am against diversity and inclusion? Or that I somehow did not make an honest effort to be inclusive? Or worst, are you suggesting I am racist or biased?

To be blunt, discussions of diversity and inclusion can easily degrade into a knee-jerk defensiveness, or a knee-jerk condemnation. I personally do not think it has to be that way. At a recent neighborhood meeting I shared a favorite quote from the great Jane Jacobs that, I think, articulates the ideal of diversity and inclusion:

“[I]n real life only diverse surroundings have the practical power of inducing a natural, continuing flow of life, and use. Superficial…variety may look like diversity, but only a genuine content of economic and social diversity…has meaning…and the power to confer the boon of life upon [a place].”

I love this quote because it illustrates that diversity is a broad concept with specific manifestations. Diversity refers to the built environment and the way human beings interact with it. Diversity refers to connections between places, between neighborhoods, between uses, and between people. Diversity refers to economic and social variety, and recognizes that one’s income or race does not dictate their inclusion at the civic table. Diversity refers to the interactions between generations. Diversity refers to constant change, and the fact that it is impossible to freeze a neighborhood, a city, a state, or a nation at a point in time.

But most importantly, Jacobs recognizes that diversity is an asset that makes our places, and our society, better.   Diversity is our reality, the question is how best to embrace it in ways that breathe life into our world. Here is where inclusion comes in. Informal inclusion can be easy, it is saying hello to a stranger, striking up a conversation with a new neighbor, letting people know about an event or opportunity, etc. Formal inclusion means elevating new voices when the opportunity presents itself. Not because we are pursuing superficial variety, but because more voices at the table means more ideas, more legitimacy for our institutions, and more of that boon of life to which Jacobs refers.

Even more to the point, the pursuit of diversity through inclusion is not a competing interest with other priorities. It is not a threat, but something we can live everyday in formal and informal ways that make our society stronger.

Thoughts on Last Night’s Council Meeting

Well I gave it my best try and was not selected for the open Oshkosh council seat. It being a 1 and 14 shot I am not really surprised. As I tweeted out, rejection is part of putting yourself out there. I know I was well qualified by any objective measure, and felt my materials, my talk, and my answers to council member questions demonstrated who I was and what I can contribute. In short I put it all out there, anything beyond that is out of my hands. I am sure each individual council member had their reasons for how they voted. It was interesting that there was no debate regarding why council members favored who they favored, though that appeared to be a process issue.

So what now? Personally, I wish the new council the best. As I stated last night the role of a board member is to serve as a bridge between the values of Oshkosh residents and the professional management of the city. It was clear while watching the decision-making process that there are entrenched coalitions on the council, which promises to make serving on this current council, well, interesting.

I am lucky in that I get to continue my service on the Plan Commission, working in the community, and making a positive impact where I can. It was heartening that so many of the other applicants are similarly positioned to contribute. It is a little disheartening that (and this is just my perception) economic development and good financial oversight seem to viewed as competing interests to diversity and inclusion. It does not have to be that way.

Diversity and inclusion should be reflected in budgets, both the process and the final product. Failing in that regard makes the budget, which is the contract between the government and the governed, fundamentally flawed. Diversity and inclusion are tools for economic development, they are concepts that legitimize decision-making and attract businesses. And Inclusion is not some abstract idea, we can operationalize it by inviting people to serve, providing basic cultural competency training to front-line bureaucrats, translating documents, and prioritizing it during the procurement processes (among many other things). These steps actually make government more efficient by ensuring we are meeting everyone where they are at. Inclusion, like transparency and accountability, are proactive concepts that increase trust, legitimacy, and performance.

We can pursue inclusion and responsible financial oversight and economic development. We can have it both ways. We need to have it both ways, because if we do not we are falling behind.

I strongly believe that persistence is what leads to good things happening. So I plan to be persistent.

Applying for the Oshkosh City Council

I am excited to have submitted an application for the vacant Oshkosh City Council position. I have submitted the required documents that I expect will be posted at some point, but I think it is worth explaining why I want to serve, what I would plan to do if picked, and my qualifications.

Why I Want to Serve

When considering submitting an application I asked myself, what are the unifying values of the City of Oshkosh? What brings us all together? Am I capable of representing the interests of Oshkosh’s 66,000 plus residents? Oshkosh is growing more diverse. I see this in my sons’ school, my neighborhood, in public spaces throughout the city, and in census trends. Our diversity includes our politics; Oshkosh has residents active across the ideological spectrum. Our unifying value is not membership in a demographic group or political party. I believe our unifying value is a commitment to maximizing the quality of life in Oshkosh. To me this is a goal that everyone, whether they have kids in school, are retired, or live on the north, south or west side, can share.

As I tell my MPA students, resources are finite, needs are infinite, and values are contested. Every resident owns a share of our government, and every resident has a right to be represented and heard. Every voice matters. To me the role of the city council is serving as a bridge between the values of our residents, and the professionals delivering services in our city. An efficient, effective, and equitable local government requires a high-functioning council where voices can be heard, civil debate can be had, and decisions can be made.

What I Would Strive To Do

But what are my specific goals if I were picked to serve?

  • I would listen and learn. This includes considering formal feedback from residents, as well as simply being available and visible.
  • I would strive for a more active transparency. I believe a government must be trusted to be effective. Taking small steps to improve the accessibility and searchability of our codes, policies, and financial documents would help improve public trust.
  • I would encourage the development of a local government accountability statement that ensures council members, city management, and citizens share a common idea of what it means for our city government to be accountable. When we are all on the same page, accountability can become an actionable concept by which we judge our performance.
  • I would advocate for continued progress towards controlling our city’s debt-service costs. The city has made progress on this front, and I would work to keep the positive momentum going be exercising good financial oversight.
  • Continue the city’s commitment to smart economic development by making Oshkosh a place where businesses want to be.
  • I believe the number one economic development tool is a good quality of life. I will always work to improve our gateways, strengthen our neighborhoods, improve our parks, and keep Oshkosh safe.
  • I would work to improve our city’s data systems. The more analytics we have to inform decision-making, the better.
  • Most broadly, I would exercise a commitment to the governance role played by the council in a City-Manager form of government. I am committed to respecting boundaries, and working collaboratively with other members of the council.

My Qualifications

I have significant experience, and a skillset, relevant to serving on the Oshkosh city council. My entire professional career has involved state and local government. I have a clear understanding of the machinery of state and local government in Wisconsin, including extensive knowledge of policy, government structure, and the specifics of local government revenue generation and concepts such as municipal aid. My time working as a lobbyist taught me how things get done in Madison. My time at the Plan commission, and service to my neighborhood association, demonstrate my knowledge of the linkages between the community and Oshkosh city government.

My formal education includes a Ph.D. in Urban Studies, which involved extensive training in planning, analytic methods, and managing the specific of public management. In my current position I teach a variety of courses relevant to local government. Click here to view my professional resume.

I have no doubt there will be many good candidates for this position. I hope that my demonstrated commitment to serving this community, my professional experience, my belief in the power of inclusion, and my commitment to good governance makes me one of them!

My Testimony to the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities

So yesterday I was given the opportunity to testify for informational purpose on Wisconsin AB51, a bill that deals with loan forgiveness my minority teachers.  Here is what I had to say:

Hello and thank you for the opportunity to testify before this committee. My name is Michael Ford and I am in my 6th year as an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. I am testifying today because AB 51 touches on a subject area in which I am currently conducting research.

The theory of representative bureaucracy states that a government that reflects the demographics and values of the governed is both more legitimate, and higher performing than one that does not. The basic premise is that passive representation, which shows up as demographic alignment between government employees and the governed, leads to active representation of minority interests. There has been a large amount of research on this topic dating back to 1944. A good deal of it focuses on education.

Why K-12 education? Teachers are front-line bureaucrats who work directly with students on a daily basis, and are thus highly influential in their development. Overall, the research on teacher representativeness shows that alignment between teacher and student racial demographics, i.e. passive representation, leads to active representation of minority students and improved overall school and district performance. In other words, we know it is good for students, in particular minority students, to be exposed to a diverse teaching force.

However in Wisconsin there are many students who are never exposed to a non-white teacher. In 2018, 191 of Wisconsin’s 422 school districts had no minority teachers. Those same districts served on average, 10 percent minority pupils. We know from studies elsewhere this could mean students are being deprived of something that can lead to improved outcomes. But what is happening in Wisconsin?

Using data collected from DPI for the years 2016, 2017, and 2018, I created a 0 -100 index for each school district in Wisconsin measuring the alignment between the percentage of minority teachers and minority students in the district. The higher the number, the more closely the alignment. I found, that in districts with 20 percent or more low-income students, higher scores on the index were linked to higher overall district accountability scores, math scores, and English language arts scores. This relationship exists after student poverty, special needs status, ELL status, and overall district size were taken into account. I then looked to see if a change in the minority teacher/student alignment index impacted performance. I found that districts that improved their minority teacher/student alignment over-time achieved math score gains. What does this mean and how is it relevant to this bill?

  • First, it shows there is recent evidence in Wisconsin that a diverse teaching force is linked to higher student performance.
  • Second, it shows that improving minority teacher representation may increase math scores in Wisconsin districts.
  • Third, it shows a little representation can go a long way, alignment doesn’t have to be perfect to matter.
  • Fourth, it shows that a broader conceptualization of minority teacher is warranted.
  • Fifth, the results are present in districts with greater then 20 percent poverty, this is much more than just a Milwaukee or Madison thing.

To conclude, there is a sound logic and good evidence for pursuing policies that increase minority representation in Wisconsin’s teaching force. Thank you for your time.

Reflecting on ASPA: My Advice to New PA Academics and Students

I still feel new to this whole professor thing, but after a few days at ASPA, and having the privilege of serving as a Founders Fellow mentor, I realize I am becoming a grizzled veteran. I had several great conversations with younger faculty/students/job seekers and many asked for advice. I do my best thinking after reflecting, so I didn’t have much to offer at the time beyond telling folks to hang in there. But I can do better than that, so here are my lessons and advice for new and aspiring academics.

Be nice to people. It is so simple and easy. When you smile at someone they tend to smile back. If they don’t, who cares, it doesn’t hurt you at all! I read about academics with rivals and I just don’t see the point. If you are kind to people you can build strong relationships even those you disagree with.

Be productive. Talk is talk. We all meet people that have a lot to say about their ongoing project, or their superstar friends, or their successes. That is fine, but talk is no substitute for the work. So how can you be productive? I write down ideas constantly, most don’t pan out. I work with anyone willing to work with me, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I listen. I always say yes to new challenges, why not!?

Fail a lot. This is the real key to productivity. Most failures are larger in your mind than in others. You will write papers that aren’t great. You will have promising collaborations fall apart. You will bomb interviews/lectures/talks. You will have journal rejections. When you fail, take a day to feel sorry for yourself, reflect on it, and move on.

Don’t let your affiliation define you. Affiliation is a signal for many things, but it isn’t always ability. Let your work speak for itself. Think of bears. That junior scholar with the famous mentor at the big university is probably more threatened by you and your success than you are of theirs. Do the work and you cannot be ignored. That said, your affiliation will define you in some people’s eyes. It will lead to desk rejections, weird interactions, and all kinds of silliness. But who cares, let your work and productivity speak for itself.

Be you. If you love teaching, teach. If you love practice, practice. If you love research, research. If you love it all, do it all. If you want to be clinical faculty, be clinical faculty. If you love service, serve. We make it too complicated on ourselves by acting like there is one true path to being a successful academic. There are many paths to a meaningful academic career, however you define it.

Walk and chew gum at the same time. Someone explained to me this weekend that their advisors say they really need to choose between being an activist and a scholar. I say nuts to that. Do both, do research that impacts practice. Testify at hearings, write op-eds, we are an applied field, so apply your work! The same goes for crossing discipline lines, it is both possible and ok to be an expert in more than one thing.

Celebrate success, be it yours, or others. A new job, a publication, a media mention, or any good thing is worthy of reflection and celebration. If it is you celebrate accordingly. If it someone else, reach out.

Others’ successes don’t devalue yours. When colleagues, friends, or total strangers have a publication or job success be happy for them! Academia It is not a zero-sum competition. If you view it that way you will only guarantee that you lose.

Don’t always listen to mentors. Mentors can give great advice, but they are not you. Take control of your own career, you are the one that has to live it. So pay attention to mentors, but ignore them when warranted (that includes my little list of advice here).

So my plane is about to board so I am all adviced out. For those still at ASPA, enjoy!  And come to MPAC2019, where I will do my best to live out some of this advice.