Foreign Policy

If Op-Eds Faced Peer Review

If Op-Eds Faced Peer Review

Higher education is in a state of flux in the United States.  At the beginning of this year it was all "MOOCs, MOOCs, MOOCs!!!" and at the end of this year it’s all, "The MOOCs bubble has popped."  So sometimes those who spot trends in the media might not have the best grasp on the subject. 

I bring this up because this past Sunday Naomi Schaefer Riley and James Piereson had an essay in the Washington Post, observing the proliferation of public policy schools.  It’s pretty clear that they’re not huge fans of this trend.  In this section, they pinpoint where things went off the rails*: 

The basic premise behind a school of policy derives from the modern idea of constitution-making — that wisely crafted laws can shape the character and conduct of citizens. Philosopher David Hume articulated this view in his 1742 essay, “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science,” arguing that while sound administration is crucial in a monarchy, the structure of the constitution and laws is more important in republican systems, where individual freedoms and public good come together. James Madison and other American founders became early practitioners of Hume’s science of politics.

In the 20th century, political science moved from the design of constitutions to the crafting of policies by neutral experts. Progressive leaders such as John Dewey, Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis argued that modern industrial society had grown too complex for the common citizen or the average elected official. It required a new class of public servants to adjudicate conflicts between business and labor and to serve on boards and commissions regulating corporate activity in the public interest.

Some of the first public policy schools were founded in the 1930s in response to the creation of New Deal government agencies. The virtue of these schools is that “they trained many people who went into government and did good things,” says John DiIulio, who runs the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania and was the first director of President George W. Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “They wired the house of American bureaucracy.”

Sizable government initiatives in the postwar era created more demand for such institutions, which became “an expression of the Progressive idea that bigger government was better government,” DiIulio explains. For example, he says, “no one had ever built an interstate highway system before,” and no one knew how to make the federal government work with state and local governments and for-profit contractors to make it happen. Enter public policy schools.

The mission of these institutions began to change in the 1970s, when the Ford Foundation issued multimillion-dollar grants to eight universities, including Yale, Duke and the University of Michigan. According to Graham Allison, writing in 2006 in the Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, the new cadre of students needed to be versed in not only “budgetary cost and efficacy” but also “social equity, civil rights, and quality of life.” People who were concerned with intragovernmental relations and American federalism began to seem “old and crusty,” DiIulio says. Now the goals of these schools were to dream up ways to “make the world a better place.”

Lofty goals have often produced research and teaching that is further and further removed from the day-to-day operations of government. While the field is so disparate that “it’s hard to talk about public policy schools as a whole,” Slaughter cautions, she and other school leaders identify certain trends, including a renewed zeal for quantitative analysis. When Georgetown President John J. DeGioia announced his university’s new policy school, he explained that “the availability of massive data to provide new analytic tools have resulted in an invaluable opportunity for our university.” The new emphasis on big data is reminiscent of the Progressive idea that if we just gather enough information, the policy conclusions will be obvious to all….

Many schools have begun to look like a mishmash of the academic departments from which their faculty members hail — such as political science, economics and sociology. But those people may have no more or less interest than colleagues from their home departments in shaping actual policy. Of course, many of these schools draw at least some faculty members from politicians who have lost elections or wonks whose parties are out of power in Washington. But such celebrity instructors are short-timers and do little to draw the academic faculty — which dominate the schools — out of their bubbles.

There is also a certain grandiosity that characterizes the missions of these institutions. With the exception of certain schools such as the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, most schools are concerned more with national and international policy than with local and state matters. Many of the places that do focus on the latter, DiIulio says, “are not among the more prestigious.”

It is not that the better-known schools never do local projects. Ellwood told us how Kennedy School students helped the mayor of Somerville, Mass., remake his city’s finances with “performance-based budgeting” — measuring how much snow gets plowed, for example, not how many snowplows are used. Ellwood offered this as an example of how policy schools have to focus on “management as much as big, bold, creative solutions.”

But one wonders how many Kennedy School graduates aspire to solve Somerville’s fiscal problems as opposed to, say, climate change and terrorism? Only 6 percent of the school’s 2012 graduates went into local, regional or state-level government jobs.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that academics entering the public sphere should treat op-eds like this the same way they treat journal articles — with all the mercy of Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons.  So here’s a fun exercise:  let’s say I had to referee this op-ed for publication.  What would I write?  

The authors make a trenchant observation about the proliferation of public policy schools, and raise a number of possible problems in this emergent trend.  They’ve conducted some useful research in talking to some public policy deans, as well as examining some of the extent literature.

While promising, however, I cannot recommend publication at this time, for several reasons.  First, their history of public policy schools has an odd cast to it.  Why start off with the Hume quote?  It makes it sound like these schools started off designing constitutional rules — when, in point of fact, the primary origins of these schools come from the study of public administration.  This isn’t an M.A. thesis for the Committee on Social Thought; lose the effort to link every trend back to the days of the classic English and Scottish liberals.

Second, there’s a shallowness to the authors’ understanding that needs to be fixed — and their empirical methods don’t help.  At one point, they claim that
"many schools have begun to look like a mishmash of the academic departments."  Forget the word "begun" — these schools have always been mishmashes of such departments.  Why are things different now?  Later, they posit that policymakers are turned off by more rigorous quantitative analysis — but the survey data presents a more complicated picture on this front.

More generally, the authors bemoan the drift in attention away from concrete matters of public administration towards more high-falutin’ goals of public-private partnerships and problems at the global level.  There are a few problems with these claims, however.  There’s no evidence of a shift towards the global level.  Indeed, by relying on interviews with top-ranked public policy schools, the authors might have a biased sample – these are the schools that are far more likely to have a global focus.  Indeed, perhaps one reason for the proliferation of public policy schools is that the new ones are providing the local orientation that the authors want.  Another issue is that there’s no discussion of why a focus on public/private partnerships is to be frowned upon.  Crudely put, if governments aren’t hiring, shouldn’t these schools focus more on the areas that do create jobs?  Finally, the authors fail to explain why focusing on global problems is such a bad thing.  This has been a theme of public policy schools in the United States since the founding of the very first of these schools eighty years ago.  Given the problems caused by a failure to coordinate macroeconomic policies, cyberspace activities or climate change regulation, this seems pretty important. 

One final observation:  the authors seem super-focused on the relevance of the research output of public policy professors.  In many ways, however, this is not the most important thing that these faculty do.  It’s in their teaching that they can impact public policy down the road.  Today’s M.A. students become tomorrow’s policymakers — and the education they receive affects their thinking.  For authors that seem to disdain academic research, why isn’t their a greater focus on the effects of teaching? 

I could go on, but you get my point. 

This isn’t the first time that Schaefer Riley has been sloppy in her pronouncements.   Still, I suspect a book project will emanate from this op-ed.  Let’s hope it produces some better and more rigorous arguments. 

Am I missing anything? 

*Until I figure out how to indent blockquotes, assume the italicized sections are quoted from other sources.