Having a Chip on Your Shoulder

I saw a recent tweet discussing the motivation that comes from being an academic with a chip on their shoulder. I agree completely. There are many things I love about working in academia. I have the freedom to follow research ideas of my choosing, some pan out, some don’t, but I get to pursue them. I get to learn something every single day. Sometimes from students, sometimes from colleagues, sometimes from books and articles, and even sometimes from myself. Research and teaching is challenging, fun, and interesting. In short, I know I have it good. Many never get to the tenure track, much less tenure.

But…and there is a but…it is not an easy road, and if I am honest, yes, I have a massive chip on my shoulder. When I hear people talk about multiple fly outs I think about how I applied for 50+ positions at R1 institutions and never even got a phone interview. I have had 3 interviews total, including where I am at. When I hear people say that it is all about publications, I cannot help but compare my record to people who did get those interviews, and who did get those jobs. When folks talk about their startup funds and their 1-2 teaching loads, I look at my 3-4 and barely functioning computer.

I will never forget the day I had an article rejected from a top PA journal on the grounds that the editor did not know who I was and thus did not trust the results. I remember the many conversations where well-meaning people advised me to not get stuck at a regional comprehensive university because it is career suicide. To be clear, I totally disagree with that assessment, but it is worth pointing out that such advice is unhelpful when R1s will not interview you.

I could go on, but who wants to hear my litany of complaints? The reality is just about every academic can share their own unique stories. When I hear tales of sexism and racism in the academy I realize my struggles are mild. When I meet colleagues who cannot sniff the tenure track despite great records I thank my lucky stars. I love PA because it is a field where we confront situations as they exist. Well, the academia is not always fair. The academia is not always a meritocracy. Perceived slights are not always slights. My read on situations is not always the correct one.

So, I try to recognize and use that chip on my shoulder. How? I work relentlessly to publish where I can when I can. I say yes to opportunities when they present themselves, and I am sure to be publicly thankful for them. I work hard to resist the urge to judge people by their publications or affiliations, instead recognizing that impact comes in many forms. I make an effort to be publicly facing so as to create a place where internal gatekeepers, be them at my institution or in my field, cannot stop me. In short, I try to make my impact where I can, and I try to focus on and appreciate how lucky I really am.

But yes, as petty as it is, I am still motivated by all of those R1s that wouldn’t interview me 🙂


Don’t Overthink it. The Issue is Gun Control

I was in high school when the Columbine shootings occurred. I attended a large suburban high school that did not seem all that dissimilar from Columbine. There was a palpable…maybe not fear…but discomfort in the halls in the days following the tragedy. An abstract fear had suddenly became something within the realm of possibility. Shortly after Columbine I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper urging school leaders to resist the urge to overreact with security measures that limited student freedom and autonomy. I believe I requested leaders to not turn our schools into a prison. Perhaps they took my advice because nothing changed.

I was living on the Southside of Milwaukee when a white supremacist murdered six people at a local Sikh temple. My wife baked cookies and we took them over to our neighbors who worshiped there.

The day I interviewed for my first academic job (the one I have) was the day of the Sandy Hook massacre. Between meetings I followed the details on my phone, I was shocked like everyone else, but also convinced that this is it. This was the tragedy that will finally open the policy window for action. The next day I returned to work at my conservative leaning think tank and penned a call for the right side of the aisle to embrace more common sense gun control. I received a little bit of pushback, but found people across the political spectrum willing to recognize we had a problem. Of course nothing changed.

In 2016 I wrote, in response to the Orlando massacre: “To me the best response to this tragedy is a steady commitment to our ideals as an open pluralistic society. If we as a nation lose that, we lose our very humanity.” After the Las Vegas shooting I had nothing to say.

Today I am once again writing about more mass shootings. I know that nothing I write will change anything, I write for me as part of my struggle to make sense of things. I can point fingers. I can blame incivility, I can blame mental illness, I can overthink it a million different ways. But one of the things that attracted me to public administration was the field’s commitment to addressing issues as they exist, not as we wish them to exist. Mental illness is part of the human condition. We can and should take steps to address it, but it will always exist. Incivility in our politics is something we can and should push to the fringes, but it will always exist to some degree.

The common denominator in all of these mass shootings is easy access to guns. The main difference between the U.S. and other similar democratic societies vis-à-vis mass shootings is they do not have easy access to the weapons used in mass shootings. The reasons these shootings occur are complex and I am not dismissing the role of mental illness, hate, and the like. But the simple direct issue that can be addressed through policy change is gun control. Not taking meaningful action because of our ideological loyalties is a choice we make as a society. The consequences of that choice will no doubt continue.

Teaching, Ambiguity, and Not Obsessing about APA Format

I have an affinity for ambiguity in teaching. I know this drives some students crazy, especially those who are used to undergraduate work where many assignments involve executing a clear set of tasks rather than venturing into the unknown. When I assign something that requires a good amount of individual ingenuity I usually get e-mails worrying about APA formatting, or about whether the specifics of the assignment are being met. My reply is likely not very comforting: What do you think?

Of course all of my assignments have a clear goal (and point) that is well explained. I use ambiguity to stimulate critical thought from the student, i.e. leadership. Leaders are able to use ambiguity to their advantage, and I teach in a program aimed at creating leaders. Further, ambiguity is a function of most real life work environments. Most of the jobs our graduates seek require independent thought and an ability to operate without a safety net. I aim to mimic that reality.

The difference is I do offer a safety net. Students need room to take risks, fail, succeed, and ultimately learn. It reminds me of teaching my grandparents about their new computer way back in the day. They were so afraid of hitting the wrong button and somehow destroying the machine. I would tell them no, worst case scenario you delete something by accident and we move one…you won’t break the whole thing by hitting the wrong button. Students, you won’t fail if you screw up APA format. I want you to learn about economy of force. Don’t spend all your time on secondary objectives. I want you to gain experience in creating your own solution to a problem. Start with the goal of the assignment and work from there!

Reflecting on Boot’s “The Corrosion of Conservatism”

I just finished reading Max Boot’s “The Corrosion of Conservatism” and it really hit home with me. Like Boot, I worked on the conservative side of the policy and advocacy world for many years, and was attracted to the right’s intellectual foundation. Personal freedom, the efficiency of markets, free trade, and diversity of thought and experience were all things I could readily get behind. Like Boot I also was socially liberal in that I supported a strong social safety net, minority rights, and marriage equality. Frankly I saw the socially liberal part as consistent with support of personal freedom and an embrace of diversity.

One of the best experiences in my intellectual life was serving as the research director for a right-leaning think tank. There I wrote constantly. I penned a piece about my own immaturity in supporting the Iraq War as a college student, confronting the ways in which I rationalized something that I was simply wrong about. I penned pieces supporting gun control, marriage equality, increased government spending, and amnesty for undocumented immigrants. I would get e-mail and snail mail agreeing with me, and disagreeing with me in fairly equal measure. But I was allowed and even encouraged to engage with these ideas on the conservative side of the spectrum.

Admittedly I was never one to idolize any individual in politics or the world of ideas (I still have a bad habit of reading library books on my kindle without knowing the author). Someone once showed me a bust of Ronald Reagan in their office because they thought I would like it…I was indifference. People are of their time and circumstances, but words and ideas live on. I prefer to engage with words and ideas rather than personalities (My favorite songwriter is Bob Dylan but I am pretty sure he would be insufferable to actually be around). If we engage with personalities over words and ideas we enter dangerous territory.

And that is where we are with our current president. I do not get it. I do not understand how the entire Republican Wisconsin Congressional delegation could vote against a resolution condemning Trump’s most recent racism. I do not understand how Paul Ryan can condemn Trump in an interview but do nothing when he had the chance. I do not understand how Scott Walker can go from saying he is dropping out of the presidential race to unite Republicans against Trump to saying he will be Trump’s greatest cheerleader in Wisconsin. I do not understand how the conservative infrastructure, which welcomed me and my ideas even when many on the right disagreed (and it is a story for another day, but the left was not so welcoming), so quickly degraded into a cult of personality.

Perhaps I was simply wrong about being welcomed. Perhaps I was merely tolerated. As Boot wrote, there were always signs of trouble, but like Boot I was happy to dismiss the signs of trouble as unrepresentative outliers. Now I am not so sure. And I am not one to condemn all Trump supporters; in a free democratic society people have every right to support who they want for the reasons they want. I am just saddened and confused to see where the conservative side of the policy and advocacy is currently at.

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.

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.