Choosing a major might become more difficult for UW students in the future, and could include a new option in public policy that isn’t well suited for the university’s educational curriculum in the social sciences.

Faculty from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance are voting on whether to start creating a new undergraduate major in public policy at the beginning of June. If professors in the Evans School decide to begin this process, the school’s dean will develop a written proposal for consideration by the UW Faculty Council on Academic Standards , which advises the university’s administration on the creation of new academic majors. 

According to Sandra Archibald, dean of the Evans School, the undergraduate program is at a preliminary stage, which is subject to additional faculty input. While the details of the program haven’t been finalized yet, Archibald said the Evans School’s proposed public policy major is not envisioned as a professional-oriented program, like a bachelor’s in business, but rather as an “integrative, interdisciplinary, critical thinking, social science degree.” 

Some of the goals of the Evans School’s public policy major would be to educate students on the “difficulty, intractability, and complexity of social policy issues,” Archibald said.

On first glance, this description of the Evans School’s new major may sound like a good addition to the UW’s existing social science programs, but as a current graduate student in public policy, as well as a former UW undergraduate in the social sciences, I find the Evans School’s proposal to be very concerning.

The Evans School teaches its graduate students valuable professional expertise in financial management, statistics, memo writing, and “insider” policy analysis. But the school’s curriculum is deeply lacking in exactly the kind of critical thinking skills that Archibald emphasizes as grounds for creating a broader, non-professional, social science degree.

The example of discriminatory policing reveals the significant limitations of the Evans School’s origins as a professional program, as well as challenges the school faces in engaging with broader societal issues that are often the bread-and-butter of social science departments.

In the first year of the Evans School’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) program, many core classes highlight the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) highly controversial “Broken Windows” policing model, “stop-and-frisk” techniques, and use of comparative crime statistics. 

Both students and faculty in the Evans School bring up criticisms of how the NYPD’s strategies disproportionately target people of color when case studies are discussed in class. But the moral dimensions of aggressive police tactics — such as how low income communities are targeted by cops as “hot spots” for constant surveillance, or young black Americans are 4.5 times as likely to be shot by the police — are consequences that are not initially questioned from ethical or political perspectives by the Evans School.

The Evans School also fails to ground its teaching of NYPD case studies in the history of structural racism and the brutal policing of people of color in the United States. As a result, students approach discriminatory policing and excessive use of force by police as technical problems in need of “process improvements,” rather than long-standing forms of institutionalized racism that require members of civil society to rethink the role of police in our communities.

Moreover, the school continues to include an ahistorical and decontextualized consideration of “Broken Windows” policing in its curriculum, despite persistent student and alumni critiques. 

In an open letter written in December 2014, 135 alumni and students called for Archibald to “review the Evans School’s core curriculum as it touches upon police work, and provide equal weight to the voices of people of color affected by these policy and management decisions.” 

Responding to concerns about how to address case studies of discriminatory policing in the Evans School’s proposed undergraduate major, Archibald pointed to relying on faculty members to be sensitive, as well as respond to important societal issues in the program’s curriculum. 

“I have every confidence that the faculty will understand that these are contemporary issues that need to be addressed,” Archibald said. “They’re not ignorant of concerns, and the kinds of complexity that we have around equity [and] inclusion.”

But some students still think problems exist related to racial justice and other aspects of the Evans School’s classes, even if leaders like Archibald are committed to finding ways of improving the school’s curriculum. 

“When diversity is raised in class, faculty don’t know how to handle it,” said Jacqueline Wu, a first-year MPA graduate student and chair of the student organization, Evans-People of Color. “Many students of color and I have experiences with faculty where we were brushed off, shut down, or were met with defensiveness, and if not that, classroom discussions and the curriculum continue to perpetuate a legacy of racism and paternalism. How can we possibly develop an undergraduate program when there are so many flaws with the master’s program?” 

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the unexpected success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, more young people in the United States are questioning the fundamental underpinnings of social relations in this country.

“Social science degrees teach students how to critically understand the root causes of inequality and oppression, and the role of social movements in making the politically impossible suddenly possible,” said Garrett Strain, a second-year MPA graduate student. “By contrast, many of the Evans School’s classes fundamentally assume that what is politically feasible is static. I’m doubtful that the Evans School would equip undergraduate students with the radical ideas and tools to create the alternative future that a growing number of young people want and need.”

Beyond intrinsic reasons why the Evans School’s curriculum does not reflect the same quality of critical thinking skills that can be found in existing social science departments, the UW’s current budgeting system also offers perverse incentives for professional schools to create and market majors to undergraduate students.

Under the university’s Activity Based Budgeting (ABB) system, the amount of undergraduate tuition revenue received by UW academic units is based on both the classes that students enroll in, as well as students’ majors. The creation of an entire degree program with steadily increasing enrollments would be a big money-making opportunity, as the school could receive a significant influx of new tuition revenue that it doesn’t currently generate.

From a university budgeting perspective, the key questions are where would new enrollments come from, and would the Evans School’s possible gains come at the expense of existing social science programs in the College of Arts & Sciences? 

“It’s possible that the creation of this major could represent fewer tuition dollars going to some departments where these students might have studied,” said Sarah Hall, associate vice provost in the UW Office of Planning & Budgeting. Hall also confirmed it would be possible for the Evans School’s new major to draw a greater proportion of new enrollments from students in existing departments. 

But when it came to the role of the Office of Planning & Budgeting in evaluating the financial impacts of new majors for the entire university, Hall emphasized what her office could not do. 

“Ultimately these are academic issues, and if there is a pedagogical reason for the creation of a new major in the Evans School, if there’s sufficient demand and it’s a high quality major, then the budget office isn’t the right place to say pursuing that isn’t a good idea,” Hall said. 

Up to now, the Office of Planning & Budgeting has had several conversations with the Evans School about its proposed major, and has even offered to help the school with its planning work. But the budgeting office has not been involved in modeling the effects that the creation of a new public policy degree would have on undergraduate enrollments. 

On the question of student interest in a new public policy major, Archibald was quick to observe that demand already exists at other high quality schools outside the UW, but she also confirmed that the Evans School does not have a robust idea of undergraduate demand at this point in time. 

Under the UW’s shared governance system, it is possible for the university’s Faculty Council on Academic Standards to approve a new undergraduate major in the Evans School without considering financial impacts on other social science departments. Similarly, the budgeting office is not directly tasked with convening a range of stakeholders, such as decision-makers in both the Evans School and the College of Arts & Sciences, to discuss the unintended fiscal consequences of creating a new public policy major. 

The Central Administration is taking steps to mitigate some of the problems associated with creating new majors. The UW is currently in the process of re-evaluating its ABB budgeting formulas, and also recently promoted Provost Gerry Baldasty to the much-needed coordinating role of executive vice president. But ultimately it is up to the UW president’s office to decide whether the creation of a new major with the potential to hurt other social science departments is a good idea.

The UW already has strong, highly ranked, and time-tested social science programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, and right now, undergraduate students are not clamoring for a new public policy major on campus. If the public policy faculty decides to approve the creation of a new major this June, other faculty and administrative decision-makers outside the Evans School should closely examine the value added by this program, as well as all of its negative possible consequences.

 

Reach contributing writer Rod Palmquist at development@dailyuw.comTwitter: @rodpalmquist

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