Life in a Small MPA Program

The Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE) has an excellent symposium up focused on the trials and tribulations of administering small MPA programs. Though all the articles are interesting, I particularly like Hatcher, Meares, and Gordon’s survey of small MPA programs. I am, of course the target audience. Our MPA program’s enrollment has ups and downs, but generally we are under 75 students (63 MPA students last semester and growing!). The JPAE symposium has be thinking about a few things I have observed regarding life in a small MPA program.

You get to jump right in. One of the opportunities of a small MPA program is that a new faculty member instantly has quite a portfolio. I have had chances to influence our core curriculum and mission that I doubt would be possible in a place where I had more than two other colleagues. I am pleased that we now offer a course on public/private partnerships and networks, and a nonprofit emphasis. I helped push for both of these because I think they are essential for a modern MPA program, and pay dirt came quickly.

You have to jump right in. Establishing a research agenda, getting familiar with your new surroundings, and developing a good rapport with students is difficult with heavy teaching loads. It just is. In four years I have developed ten different courses. I do not know any differently, but that feels like a lot. Though I technically have a reduction to a 3/3 load, teaching 4 classes a semester is not a rare occurrence.   Service responsibilities are also high. When you have three faculty members committees tend to be populated by the whole department. Again, it gives new faculty members a major voice in their programs, which is awesome, but it is a challenge.

Freedom to pursue a relevant research agenda. Like all places my small MPA program demands an active research agenda. I love this part of my work and feel lucky to be given a lot of freedom regarding what research is deemed relevant. I have a broad agenda and like that the expectation is not that I only publish in budgeting, or nonprofit, or even public administration journals. Ours is a diverse field, and having a diverse course load allows for a diverse impactful research agenda.

Good relationships. I could not imagine being in a department of three if I did not work well with my colleagues. There is no room for coalitions here, and there is dedication all around. Good stuff.

The NASPAA question. We have a quality long-established MPA program that prepares our students for public service. I am proud of our program and our results. We are not NASPAA accredited. We all wish we were, but the killer is always the same: “Programs should also have a nucleus faculty of at least 5 full-time faculty members.” Though money is always an issue, I feel that is one that can be resolved through creativity and hard work. The faculty question is harder. I am curious to hear what other smaller programs have done to address this question. I wish there was some alternative we could pursue that demonstrates our quality to a broader external audience.

Overall my four years here leave little to be desired. Small MPA programs are not for everyone, but it is (in my opinion) a nice niche in which an academic can make a positive impact.


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