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New public policy graduate program prepares leaders to make change

Combining managerial skills with research analysis, the U of R’s new Master of Public Policy and Administration (MPPA) program is designed to provide the essential leadership, decision-making, policy development, analysis, advocacy, and effective communication skills needed for contemporary policy work within government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit corporations that engage in government relations. Students can apply for the program now and the first cohort will begin courses this fall. Co-chairs Professor of Political Science Greg Thorson and former president of the Colorado Senate and appointee of the Obama administration Peter Groff ’85 answer questions about the need for the program, its curriculum, and the benefits of learning from instructors with real-world experience.

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How did the idea for this program come about? Was there a need that you saw?

Greg Thorson: This has been an incredible story of the University of Redlands offering more applications for learning and exploring experiential learning. Ken Hall, the founder of my endowed chair, thought that the discipline [of public policy] had become too theoretical, and he wanted more students out in the field, making a difference. I created some additional public policy courses, and the undergraduate major launched around 2013. It grew like rapid fire; there was tremendous student interest. The next step—and we did talk about this as early as 2011—was launching a master's program to train the leaders of tomorrow at the graduate level. So, we’ve been talking about this for at least 10 years, but in earnest for the last 18 months. We see a need for strong leaders in the public service sector. We want to teach them the skills of analysis and management techniques that will help them be effective leaders.

Peter Groff: Greg and I have known each other for more than 10 years. During that time, I told him what I was hearing from both elected and appointed officials: students who graduate with an undergraduate degree weren't ready to immediately come in and make a difference. They understood theory and how things should work, but they didn't have the practical experience to hit the ground running in a fast-paced environment. I kept sharing that with him and it ultimately led to this program. It's about getting young people trained not only in theory, but with very practical applications that they can use immediately.

What are the core concepts students will be learning and how does the curriculum differ from similar programs at other institutions?

Thorson: There have been huge developments in statistical and quantitative analysis, specifically related to the concept of causal inference. For example, we want to know what policy interventions work: which policy interventions reduce disparities between poor and non-poor kids in schools? We are going to offer strong training in quantitative methods and then apply them to the current literature. Students will look at economics journals and top public policy journals to see which applied interventions are working. We're going to focus on that literature and what works rather than ideology or partisanship. We’re also going to teach students how to write. Learning how to write effective briefs, white papers, how to write about policy in general, and knowing how to communicate in an evidence-based way are competencies that strongly distinguish us from our competitors. The program is very skills-based. We want to see a whole bunch of policy interventions come out of our program that try and improve the world and make a difference. That is quite different from our competitors, whose programs are very academic and driven by tenured professors who have never had experience in a state legislature or in a presidential administration like Peter’s.

Groff: Each term, students will take a theory class which will be followed by a skills-based class, and then we're going to bring those two together. We want students to be thinking and doing at the same time. The communications piece that Greg mentioned is critical. I did not want one of my aides to come in with a 15-page policy brief on a bill that I was getting ready to debate in 15 minutes. I needed something very quick and to the point, that really talked about the high-level points. Verbal presentations are another piece of this communications training. A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with my senate staff, and they talked about how often I call them up and ask them to tell me what's going on with wildfire mitigation legislation. They didn't have time to write anything; they had to come in and tell me exactly what was going on. Those are the kinds of skills students will develop.

There's also an impressive group of practitioners, many of whom are Redlands alumni, who will be teaching some of the courses. What’s the benefit of learning from people who have experience in the field?

Groff: It is so cool, particularly from a school this size, to be able to pull from a vast array of folks who have worked in different areas of government and who are doing it right now—folks who graduated from the program a couple of years ago who are working in public health, in the current administration, or focusing on climate change and environmental justice. They sat in those same classrooms, walked that campus, and now they’re doing important work. The connection to alumni and their networks is incredible.

Thorson: We're not producing PhDs; we are producing practitioners. As a result, half of the program’s executive committee is made up of practitioners. More than half of the teachers are practitioners of the program. It's only right that students would learn from people who are doing the types of things that we're asking them to work towards. These practitioners are governing and developing the program with us, as well as teaching in the program.

What are other unique aspects of the program?

Groff: There’s going to be a clinical piece to it as well. A policy laboratory, if you will, where students will be able to work with elected and appointed officials—not only from the Inland Empire but across the country—and with advocacy organizations. The ability to do that work and have it on a resume when they graduate is something that's unique to the program as well.

Thorson: First Mondays, a program where we network with practitioners in the field allows students to meet and learn from a few Bulldogs every month who are doing a wide variety of things. Second would be the research-to-practice link. For example, this last week an article came out about the Ban the Box movement that concerns convicted felons having to check a box on applications even long after they've served time. What's the impact of that? It was found that there are racially segregatory and discriminatory impacts when the box was banned. I think it was a little bit shocking. Having a chance to review these articles and talk about them in a critical environment where we examine their methods and findings is a way to modify the policy interventions and get rid of unintended consequences.

How will an MPPA degree impact students’ careers?

Thorson: When students graduate, they're going to have a portfolio of briefs and white papers that they've written that demonstrate the strong, nonpartisan analysis and effective communication skills, that a student with just an undergraduate degree wouldn’t have. They'll also have tremendous policy knowledge from the program’s specialized courses. They'll have clinical experiences that they wouldn’t have otherwise had including being actively involved in writing grants or program evaluations. or working on a policy area with a policymaker. Those are all significant takeaways from the program.

Groff: The connections that they’ll be able to make in the program will serve them well over time, too.

Who would be an ideal candidate for this program?

Thorson: Another distinct development is that we are not very interested in GRE scores or undergraduate GPAs; we're looking for a capacity and commitment to leadership. We want to find people from a diverse set of backgrounds, who really who have a vision of what they want to do and who want to improve the world. If you have a strong desire and an interest in developing and implementing powerful policy interventions in the public sector, we want to invest in you.

Groff: The folks that we want are people who want to change the world and have a heartfelt commitment to leaving the world better than they found it—the rest will fall in line after that. If you have a passion for change, this is the program for you.

 When can students apply and when does the program begin?

Thorson: The program starts this fall, in September. Students can begin the application process by submitting an inquiry on the program website.

Learn more about studying public policy at the University of Redlands.