Reflections from MPAC 2017: The Importance of Humility

I am getting ready for my trip home from the 4th annual Midwest Public Affairs Conference (MPAC), eating breakfast, and reflecting a bit on the last three days. First off, the conference was planned well and everything about the University of Nebraska-Omaha was impressive. The campus, the venue, and people all indicate a place whose positive (and growing) reputation is well earned.

The research presentations were also highly encouraging. I have, in the past, expressed worry on this blog that academic PA is becoming dominated by a handful of schools and the favored methodologies of those schools’ scholars. I fear that this isomorphism may stifle creative thought and enforce a methodological rigidity that threatens the practicality of our field. If all we do are experiments related to federal government, what is the appeal of academic PA to the thousands of municipalities who also need good governance? Well, MPAC is a great reminder that my fears are overblown. Scholars from PA departments of all stripes presented diverse practically relevant work on state and local governance issues. Not once did I walk out of a presentation with that “who cares?” question rattling in my head. It was refreshing (and from a selfish standpoint what I needed after a particularly tough semester).

But there was something else going on at MPAC that took a bit of reflection to conceptualize in my brain. Humility. I have to give credit to Rick Hess for writing extensively about the need for humility in the education reform world. The same holds true in PA. We do not have all the answers and we should not pretend that we do. One methodology is not intrinsically better than another; it depends on the research question being explored. The failures and shortcoming of our government are not all the fault of politics, lack of funding, and/or citizen misconceptions. No, we as PA scholars do not know what we do not know, and it is fine to embrace that. What I experienced in the presentations and conversations at MPAC was a community of scholars who are actively embracing research agendas driven by their humble desire to improve governance in their communities. Any hint of methodological or ideological pretension was refreshingly lacking. Heck, people even had am open-mind about what qualifies as Midwest.

All in all a great conference that reinforced what attracted me to PA in the first place. If you have not yet experienced MPAC, be sure to join us next summer in Chicago.

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