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.

 

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Breaking Down Evers’ Proposed School Choice Changes

Yesterday the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on some of Governor Evers’ proposed changes to Wisconsin’s school choice programs. The specifics are yet public, and the specifics will matter a great deal, but I wanted to break down what the proposal likely means. First and foremost, with Republican control of the legislature there is no way all or even most of this becomes law. That said, split control means some changes are likely on the horizon.

The most substantial proposal is to “freeze the number of students who may enroll in private voucher schools across the state, including in Milwaukee…” I have big questions about this proposal. Will enrollment at specific schools be frozen at current levels? Or, will total program enrollment be frozen? If total program enrollment is frozen it creates a logistical nightmare for schools, parents, and regulators. How will seats be allocated? Will low performing schools get seats at the expense of high performing schools? Will it just be random? How will the logistics work when students can apply to multiple schools at once? How will schools budget in this uncertainty?

If the freeze is at the school level I also additional questions. First, my research shows that school growth in Milwaukee is linked to stability and that stability is linked to performance. Limiting growth at the school level will create more instability in what is already an unstable school sector.

Freezing enrollments will be less impactful (at the macro-level) in the state program because those schools in general are less dependent on voucher revenue. But in Milwaukee, an enrollment freeze is likely to create more chaos in a system that desperately needs stability. Again, the specifics may tell a different story, but as described, I see nothing to suggest an enrollment freeze will have a positive impact on student performance in Milwaukee.

According to the Journal Sentinel, “voucher schools also would be banned from charging tuition for students living in poverty under the proposal and would be required to allow students to opt out of religious activities.” I am interested to see the specifics of the religious opt out change, because according to the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau: “A school participating in the choice program cannot require a choice pupil to participate in any religious activity in the school if the pupil’s parent or guardian submits a written request to the pupil’s teacher or the school’s principal that the pupil be exempt from such activities.”

I am also unclear as to what the tuition change refers to. Currently high schools can charge additional tuition to voucher pupils with family incomes above 220% of the federal poverty level. If the proposal is to eliminate this provision, its impact would be pretty minor from a macro-level. If it prevents schools from charging tuition to low-income non-voucher pupils, it would legally problematic I’d think.

The Journal Sentinel story also states “All teachers working in schools receiving taxpayer-funded vouchers would be required to be licensed like public school teachers.” Under current law “all of the private school’s teachers have a teaching license issued by the department or a bachelor’s degree or a degree or educational credential higher than a bachelor’s degree, including a masters or doctorate, from a nationally or regionally accredited institution of higher education.” Some schools already employ only licensed teachers, but many do no. This change would have a significant impact on the Milwaukee teacher labor market.

Under the proposal “all voucher schools would be required to be accredited before receiving taxpayer funds.” Under current law non-accredited schools can get a pre-accreditation that allows them to join the MPCP, and have three years to obtain full accreditation. The main impact of this change would be to block start-up schools, which, have already slowed considerably.

According to the Journal Sentinel “The governor’s budget also proposes to suspend the creation of new independent charter schools until 2023 and eliminates a program aimed at Milwaukee that requires county officials to turn persistently poor-performing schools into charter schools without district officials’ approval.” This is pretty self-explanatory. Eliminating the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program is unlikely to be controversial since it never fully materialized. And to put it mildly, was a train wreck of an idea. Freezing independent charters will be controversial, especially in Milwaukee where there are several high performing independent charters. I am curious to learn the rationale for the freeze.

Finally, the proposal would tie per-pupil voucher payment increases to “increases in the amount of money school districts could raise in revenue and receive through the state’s per-pupil funding formula.” This seems logical to me, more certainty in funding mechanisms enables better school-level planning.

Big picture, will this proposal enable positive sustainable change that leads to improved outcomes for Milwaukee children, or is it business as usual in Milwaukee’s fragmented education system?  Well, the budget process is long and I will withhold judgement until I see the specifics, but this feels like a movie I’ve seen before.

Finding A Better Approach to Economic Development in Wisconsin

With news today that no, Foxconn will not be building the factory they said they were, I cannot help but think about what proper economic development should look like in Wisconsin. To be fair, it appears Foxconn will still have a presence in Wisconsin, and I do hope it has a positive economic impact, but based on the boondoggle it has been up to this point I am not optimistic. Upon reflection, Governor’s Walker’s approach to economic development was flawed from the start.

As I wrote at the time, the 200,000 new jobs promise was mere pandering reflecting a cynical political calculus at best, and a profound ignorance at worst. The creation of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) made sense in concept, but its revolving door leadership and corresponding organizational dysfunction is evidence of an idea that was not well thought out. Details matter. And then we have Foxconn, an attempt to purchase jobs that is revealing itself to be more and more flawed every day.

So what does a good economic development approach look like? I like to divide it into Tier 1 and Tier 2 strategies. Tier 1 strategies are prerequisites that serve as the foundation for economic development. First, we need a sensible tax environment that does not give other states a significant competitive advantage. Credit where credit is due, Walker was fine on this front. Second, we need an honest budget that is not reliant on transfers, delayed projects, and one-time tricks. Third, we need strong infrastructure that can support businesses’ needs. So roads, public transit, etc. These tier 1 strategies are necessary, but not enough.

Tier 2 strategies involve making Wisconsin a place where businesses and their employees want to be. First, we need strong urban policies that reflect the need for Milwaukee and Madison to be the engine that drives the state’s economy. All the recent urban bashing from the right is damaging on this front. Second, we need strong education systems from K-12 to higher-ed. People want to live in areas with strong schools. People want their kids to be able to attend good affordable colleges. Employers need well-educated workers. Universities can also serve as partners in innovation that facilitate entrepreneurship and new job creation. Third, we need strong local governments capable of providing good services to their residents. Strong communities require governments with the fiscal capacity and independence to meet the needs of their citizens. A move towards a cooperative federalism where external funds are seen as an asset, and local governments are empowered with the autonomy necessary to meet local needs is preferable to Wisconsin’s drift toward state dominance. Fourth, we need a functioning politics. Gerrymandering, curtailing of executive power for blatantly political reasons, and hard lines on revenue options broadcasts to the world that Wisconsin politicians favor short-term power over stability and the establishment of a high quality of life.

There is of course more to untangle here, and more details on specific strategies are needed. But the bottom line is an effective economic development strategy starts with making Wisconsin a place people want to live.

What in the World is Happening in Wisconsin?

This morning the Wisconsin legislature took unprecedented steps to remove power from the executive branch to the legislative branch during a lame duck session. Though Republican leaders have tried to downplay the significance of the changes the reality is far from insignificant. Some of the statements from legislative leaders are simply stunning in their honesty. Republican leadership says they do no trust Evers, they say they want to codify current practice, they say they want to stop a liberal governor, they accuse the media of being a branch of the Democratic party. In other words this is about consolidating political power, plain and simple. Election results and norms do not seem to matter.

What is happening in Wisconsin is a symptom of a broader sickness in our politics that we, as citizens, and as those with a voice, need to address. What are the roots of that sickness? The first is the winning fallacy. In 2009 Wisconsin Democrats controlled Wisconsin government. In 2011 Republicans took control. In January we go back to divided government. These swings are a healthy part of democracy. Yet moves such as gerrymandering, reducing the authority of agencies, taking power away from the executive branch, and messing with voting all assume a permanent victory by one party is possible. It is not. Governing as if one party can win assures that Wisconsin’s diverse citizenry lose. Why? Government becomes a tool for consolidating power rather than meeting the needs of all citizens.

Second is the association of institutional checks with political parties. The professional bureaucracy ensures expertise in continuity in service delivery even when political power changes. Bureaucracy is the steady hand that keeps our government moving. Taking power away from agencies because they are unelected or seen as too liberal is a move born of ignorance or indifference to the machinery of government. Improving government performance, holding agencies accountable and demanding transparency are good things. Dismissing agencies as unelected political actors by taking away the tools they need to do their jobs only serves to hurt our citizens. And the assertion that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is an arm of the Democratic Party is straight obfuscation to justify that which cannot be logically justified.

Third is tribalism. These moves are opposed by Democrats so if I am not a Democrat these must be good moves. It cuts both ways, if a Republican proposed the idea it must be coming from a bad place. Tribalism is, in my opinion, merely an excuse not to engage with political opponents. In a state as politically divided as Wisconsin tribalism threatens the basic functioning of state government. I am genuinely surprised and saddened that there are almost no voices from the right speaking out against this power grab. I spent a long time working closely with Wisconsin Conservatives and I cannot believe so many folks who care so passionately about Wisconsin are ok with this.

Fourth is the tendency for the freak out. I may catch hell for this, but I say it in private all the time, I do not think Walker wins a second term if not for the recall elections. Protest is good, but when it goes too far and manifests in strategic blunders it gives people cause to dismiss your position as unserious. We are seeing this right now in how supporters of the power grab are comparing protests today to Act 10. The two are totally different, Act 10 was a major policy change by a new governor that enflamed passions. As ugly as it was, the administration was empowered to do it. This power grab is an attempt to undermine basic democratic norms by undermining a duly elected governor. I hope the reaction to this is a concerted effort to address why it is indefensible and not overreach; the time for political accountability will come in due course.

Despite my sadness I am optimistic for the future in Wisconsin; people are paying attention, and overreach corrects itself. I do believe these moves will be a strategic blunder. With Act 10 people were able to compartmentalize the impacts; not all citizens are public employees, and the role of organized labor is contested in the electorate. Not so with democracy. I have to believe support for basic democratic norms is something that can unite Republican and Democrat alike.

The Wisconsin Power Grab

So a little bit about what is going on in Wisconsin. It is a blatant political move to handcuff the new administration and it is disgusting. Much of it is in the weeds, meaning it may not get the attention it deserves. So what is in it?

  • Redundancy. Currently state agencies can be asked by the legislature to conduct a retrospective economic impact analysis of an admin rule. Under this law the legislature can ask for an independent analysis within 90 days of the agency’s analysis. It shows distrust in agencies.
  • Power grab. This bill subjects the Governor’s appointees to the Group Insurance Board to Senate confirmation.
  • More power grab. The bill increases the size of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) from 12 to 18 people; 10 of which are appointed by the legislature. This shifts control of the WEDC from the governor to the legislature.
  • Naked politics. The bill moves the presidential primary from April to March to suppress turnout in the supreme court race. This is also inefficient.
  • Undermining the Attorney General (AG). Currently when parties (like local government) allege a statute is unconstitutional it goes to the AG. Now it will go to the legislature.
  • More undermining. The AG will no longer be able to “compromise or discontinue” a DOJ action at the governor’s request, it instead is decided by the legislature. So the new AG will not be able to get Wisconsin out of all the cases the current AG signed us up for.
  • Undermining agencies. Agency compliance plans with federal law will not confer rule-making authority or empower agencies to promulgate rules.
  • Paperwork! Agencies will have to submit quarterly reports to the legislature listing “all expenditures for administrative supplies and services that are made at the discretion of or to be used by” high-level agency administrators.
  • More undermining. Currently the legislature can suspend administrative rules, but the suspension sunsets if a bill is not passed to that effect. Under this law the legislature can suspend rules multiple times, so essentially forever without passing a bill
  • More undermining. Limits the Governor’s ability to do provisional appointments
  • Guns at the Capitol. Because why not, if the new administration wants to ban firearms in the Capitol the legislature now must approve.
  • More undermining. Agencies and the Governor cannot pursue federal waivers unless the legislature passes legislation requesting the waiver.

There is more, but this gives you a taste of how obscene this legislation is. If any of this is anything more than a naked attempt to undermine the newly elected Governor and the Administrative arm of government the legislature can wait until January.

Thoughts on Wisconsin’s Governor’s Race: What Went Wrong with Gov. Walker and What to Expect from Gov. Evers

I almost made it. But I did go to sleep before the Wisconsin governor’s race was called, so I did not learn about the victory until checking my phone sometimes around 4:00 AM. So what happened, and what should we here in Wisconsin expect?

I have mixed feelings about Scott Walker and the legacy of his tenure. I voted for him more than once, attended his first inaugural, and spent a lot of time defending his policies to skeptics. I do not regret that support. Walker’s first budget was a needed correction to decades of poor budgeting practices at the state level. Walker’s public indifference to cultural issues was refreshing and made me hopeful for a substantive tenure. Even Act 10 held promise as a public management revolution. Walker’s start was, in my opinion, promising. What happened? Here, in no particular order, are the missteps that sunk Walker (in my opinion of course):

  • The 250,000 jobs promise. It was just dumb. It was a gimmick rooted in rudimentary messaging strategy rather than serious leadership.
  • The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). This was a promising idea executed poorly. And by poorly I mean not at all; I see little evidence that serious thought was given to how this would work in practice.
  • Turning down federal healthcare dollars and stopping the high-speed rail project revealed a leader who favored political calculus over cost-benefit analysis. Federalism does not mean the absence of a fiscal and regulatory relationship with other layers of government.
  • Disjointed education policy. Rather than a clear vision we saw bits and pieces that never really came together. I could spend a lot of time on this, but changing state tests, never separating education spending from tax relief, and the shift away from equity evidenced by favoring general categorical aid increases over revenue limit increases are the biggest trouble spots.
  • Starving local government. The fiscal stress facing municipal government due to the shared revenue freeze is inconsistent with what I thought would happen when a former county executive who favors local control took office. It placed local government in constant react mode. I really thought Walker would empower rather than hinder local government leaders.
  • Punitive higher-ed policy. I am probably too close to this one, but Walker’s statements and funding decisions in higher-ed show a lack of understanding (or concern) of how faculty labor markets work. Any potential to enact needed reforms in the UW system were undermined by punitive actions.
  • Another case of a potentially good thing undermined when political calculus overtook cost-benefit analysis.
  • Lack of post-Act 10 follow up.. Act 10 was tough, but had (and still has potential) to improve public management in the state. But where was the follow up? Why are we still talking about fiscal impacts 7 seven years later? What has been done to empower local governments to make the most of their new management freedoms and responsibilities?

The common theme here is that Governor Walker did not have a second act. The execution and the follow-up were not there, and hence there was no comprehensive governing strategy evident to the public. All of these problems were magnified in the aftermath of his failed presidential bid, and the chaos of Trumpism.

So what will happen under Evers? With split control of government I am not expecting radical changes. But here are my reasonable expectations (hopes?):

  • Rather than focus on a repeal of Act 10, which is not realistic, let’s develop new supports for public managers, and new avenues for public employee empowerment (I will expand on this idea in future writing I promise!).
  • Reasonable shared revenue increases, and the return of inflation indexing to increase certainty in local government finances.
  • The implementation of Evers’ Fair Funding for our Future education funding plan. I supported this back in the day and continue to think there are good ideas here to make our K-12 funding system more logical, equitable, and impactful.
  • Throw us a bone in higher-ed! The resource environment is rough and our creative solutions are well-intentioned but are not the long-term answer.
  • Rather than talk about repealing the Milwaukee voucher program let’s make it work as part of a common Milwaukee governance reform (I have ideas, feel free to e-mail me!).
  • Engage the talent in the UW system. A plug here for UWO’s MPA program: We have expertise, ideas, and will travel!

Less specific but more important is competent management and execution of a clear vision for Wisconsin. As I said, I have confidence based on what I’ve seen, and I am hopeful.

 

Doing More with Less: Making it Work at a Wisconsin University

Little is as professionally difficult as being told you must do more tomorrow than you did today because of external issues unrelated to your job performance. Oh, and with fewer resources. But this is the reality facing many public sector employees, and this is my reality at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. In my five years here my travel money has been cut to $400, my teaching load increased to a 4-3, and my department cut to just three faculty members. During the same time period I’ve published consistently, received good teaching evaluations, and watched our MPA program grow from 58 to 80 students. We’ve launched new online programming, and new emphases in areas like nonprofit management. As important, my colleagues are awesome. They publish, innovate, and contribute to the health and vibrancy of our field, our university, and our community.

In short, our program is doing great things, and poised to do even better things.

Hence it is an odd time of consistently good news within my program, and mostly bad news coming from the outside. People are reacting to our resource challenges in different ways. Some faculty members have left. Many more have been tempted to leave. Some are organizing to create a union presence. Some are understandably cutting back on research. In some quarters morale is suffering. I myself am choosing to have a positive attitude. Why?

It’s not the university’s fault. Ok, no doubt the university is not perfect, and questionable management in the past is at least a partial cause of the challenges we face today. But our primary resource challenges are a function of political decisions beyond the university’s control. Changing demographics are also a major factor. It is hard for me to fault the current university administration; someone has to make these tough decisions.

It’s what I signed up for. As I tell my students, part of working in the public sector is living under a level of political control. No, my dean is not a politician, nor is the rest of the university’s leadership, but fiscal and policy decisions are subject to the political whims of the day. I do not like getting resources cut, but having worked in politics I understand that these things can and do happen.

I’m stubborn. We all create our own personal narratives to a degree, so allow me to share one of my foundational anecdotes. When doing my dissertation research I sought cooperation from professional entities that would have made my work a lot easier. They declined to cooperate, which only increased my enthusiasm for doing the project. It was harder, but I was not going to allow others to dictate my course of action.

We can be creative. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I think Abe Lincoln said that (this is a multi-level Bob Dylan reference for the uninitiated). Resources can come from many places. Personally it is hard to complain about cuts in travel money when I still get to travel to present research on a regular basis. The money for this travel comes from external grants and organizations willing to fund my talks. I have to be proactive, and often have to turn good opportunities down, but so far it is working. Other creative solutions, like collaboration between departments, partnerships with organizations outside the university, and multi-campus collaborations are occurring as well. Universities are populated by smart people adept at finding creative solutions to difficult problems. An unintended positive impact of our challenges may be the unleashing of these creative forces.

Things change. I am confident the resource environment will improve. This may be a political change, the realization of our university’s right-sizing goals, or the creation of a university bureaucracy that is more personalized to the goals and talents of individual professors. Why not play to our strengths? Give those who publish more the time and resources to continue to publish. Let those that teach best teach more classes and get rewarded for it. Let those that serve best serve more. I realize it is much more complex than my simplistic presentation, but I do think incentive structures within the university bureaucracy can be individualized to the benefit of all.

Our work is important. I see it when a student has a break through. I see it when a piece of research impacts practice or a policy debate. I see it when our graduates do great things in their communities. I see it in our collaborations with practitioners. I refuse to allow something like reduced travel money or increased teaching loads dilute the positive impact our program is having.

Perhaps I am delusional, but I prefer to simply control what I can control. I cannot unliterary solve the resource and political challenges faced by my university. But I can work hard every day to provide the best student experience I can, do my part to contribute to a positive work environment, and produce research that advances practice and my field. So that is what I choose to do. I figure any positive impact I have in a difficult resource environment will only be magnified when things improve.