Message to Schools of Public Affairs: Innovate or Die

I recently attended and presented at my first National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) annual conference. NASPAA is a membership association for graduate programs in public administration, public policy and public affairs. NASPAA also serves as the accrediting body for these master’s degree programs, the majority of which offer a nonprofit concentration. Nearly 500 people—largely deans, directors and faculty members—attended the conference.

The buzzwords I heard throughout the conference sessions were innovation, adaptation, collaboration and teaching across sectors. One of the sessions I attended was titled “Leading Innovation” and included a panel of well respected deans from the University of Southern California, New York University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Georgia, Carnegie Mellon, and George Washington University. The deans discussed how the old way of teaching public policy, public affairs and public administration isn’t cutting it anymore. They explained how professors and programs can no longer teach about one specific sector but must teach across sector boundaries in all of our courses. Professors must integrate technology, social entrepreneurship and leadership learning into their curriculum, they said, all while making sure that NASPAA core competencies are being taught.

This sounds great, but is challenging for many professors to put into action. A professor in the audience said (paraphrasing) that professors are taught to become experts on one topic and to maintain narrow research agendas centered on that one topic. However, in today’s educational environment, it takes leadership to provide opportunities for professors to expand our knowledge base, to learn to think in new ways, and to teach public affairs competencies generally and collaboratively across sectors.

The colloquy I co-led with our MPA program chair included a discussion of how some schools of pubic policy, affairs, and administration are adapting to the changing student population, pushing for internationalization of courses and integrating community service-learning components. Today’s students want to be actively involved in their learning inside and outside of the classroom environment. But what does this look like? For me, the conference’s “aha” moment came when I was tweeting about the conference (#naspaa12) and a recent graduate of a NASPAA-accredited MPA program in California replied to one of my tweets stating that he had never heard of NASPAA, the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) or the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) before.

At that moment, I realized that professors (myself included) need to take down our walls and share our networks and association involvement. Maybe some schools are better than others about sharing information about professional networks and associations, but when I brought up YNPN in my colloquy, it became clear that no other faculty members had heard of YNPN before. I also realized that, as professors, we have so much knowledge that often we forget to start from the beginning in sharing the information that we have (especially with our networks). Networking is key in today’s job market and making sure that our students get connected in the right networks helps them with their job placement.

NASPAA itself had to innovate at this year’s conference. They realized they had outgrown the “National Association” part of their name and had to come up with a new name that would encompass international public policy, affairs and administration programs. They formed a task force that met for a year to discuss the possible name change and came up with two options. As with any change, there was resistance and the vote was close. The name that was chosen is the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration.

The NASPAA name change is a good example of ways programs and schools of public affairs education can think about innovation. As we evolve and innovate in our course content and teaching across sectors, we also need to revise our course descriptions, names of courses and names of our degree programs. All in all, change is hard, but if graduate programs in public affairs, administration and public policy don’t innovate, they’ll die.


Heather Carpenter is an assistant professor studying public and nonprofit education and teaching in a NASPAA-accredited master’s of public administration program at Grand Valley State University.

  • dclaudew

    Interesting article. A search of Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration leads to a No. 1 page ranking for a PDF memo. That is, neither the organization itself nor any of its research or findings rank highly.


    NASPAA’s new name was approved by a membership vote during the conference, but has not yet taken effect. A search for the name used for over 40 years (see opening sentence and link) will return the organization’s work.