Master of Public Administration program aces accreditation

BGSU’s Master of Public Administration program has achieved accreditation by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration (NASPAA), recognized as the “gold standard” in graduate programs in public affairs accreditation.

A Washington, D.C.-based, international nonprofit organization, NASPAA is the commission on peer review and accreditation.

Not only was BGSU’s program accredited, it received a special commendation for its service-learning and civic engagement component.

“That’s a hallmark of our program and it really makes us stand out within the region and the state,” said Dr. Shannon Orr, graduate coordinator for the program, which is part of the Department of Political Science. “Ours is an applied degree, and our service-learning courses give students substantial hands-on experience through projects that benefit the community. They learn the theory and they also know how to put it into practice.”

NASPAA accreditation is not common, and coming from such a program will be a boon to graduates in finding a job, according to Orr. “Employers are looking for high standards in a graduate degree,” she said.

When NASPAA redesigned its accreditation process a few years ago to make it more meaningful and much more rigorous, “it was a new opportunity for us to get accredited,” Orr said. “The pieces were all there but we needed to arrange them in a more intentional way. We’re really pleased with the results and we feel our program is even stronger now.”

The faculty devised a strategic plan and redesigned the curriculum around the new standards. The multi-year process was arduous, Orr said.

Among the steps were a comprehensive self-study and an 85-page application that covered everything from the program’s mission statement and goals to curriculum and course content, learning objectives in five domains essential to public service, faculty expertise, the quality of advising, and the job placement rate of graduates.

A team of NASPAA evaluators then visited BGSU and met with the program’s faculty, director and students, Provost Rodney Rogers, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Raymond Craig, Jessica Turos, associate director of the Career Center, and alumni of the program.

“Our students were fantastic,” Orr said. “We had a high turnout for the interviews. Some even took off from work to come early that day.”

“It made me so happy when we met with them,” said second-year MPA student Caitlin Buhr. “Every seat was full, and people had prepared so they could speak articulately about their experience with the program. It was nerve-wracking, but we just answered their questions sincerely and everyone was enthusiastic.”

Students who choose BGSU’s program tend to be highly engaged and drawn to its civic engagement focus, Buhr has found. Their enthusiasm and the range of their individual interests are among the characteristics she values most about the program.

“I looked at a lot of grad schools, “ said Buhr, who is from Mount Horeb, Wis., and received an undergraduate degree in environmental studies. “I wanted an MPA program with a strong faculty in environmental policy, and we have Dr. (Andrew) Kear, who’s an expert in fracking issues and policy, and Dr. Orr, who specializes in climate change. I visited and meeting with Dr. Orr clinched it for me.”

But the program has given her exposure to a wide variety of issues, she said, in part because students can channel their individual projects toward their interests.

“You learn so much from your colleagues here,” she said.

Buhr’s primary focus is policy analysis, which she would like to pursue in the local government or nonprofit arena. She got hands-on experience in a class where she analyzed the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan, designed to decrease emissions from coal plants.

Another class that was also difficult, but very helpful, was Dr. Russell Mills’ course on public sector budgets — how the government and nonprofits manage money. “We analyzed a real budget to determine if it was healthy,” Buhr said. “It was really grueling but we learned so much.”

Buhr analyzed the budget of Ceres, is a nonprofit sustainability advocacy organization. 

Alumnus Joe Fawcett, who is the Wood County assistant county administrator, also reported that the skills he learned in the class have proven extremely useful to him in his job.

Mastering statistics and becoming skilled in SPSS, the primary statistical software used in public administration, is an important component of the program, Orr said.

“In my Seminar in American Politics course, taught by Dr. Nicole Kalaf-Hughes, I utilized SPSS statistics software,” Buhr said. “We were also taught how to use SPSS software in Research Methods.”

Preparing students for jobs is a key focus of the faculty.

“We have a responsibility to get them ready for jobs that match with our mission statement,” Orr said. “We are so focused on integrating career development from the beginning, and that’s articulated in our commitment to civic engagement. We want them to be thinking about it by the end of their first day in class.”

The capstone course includes career development workshops, resume and cover letter writing and coaching, and practice interviewing.

Students compile a portfolio throughout their time in the program that represents their knowledge and activities. In addition to their research and coursework, they are required to complete five professional development activities on their own time.

“There are 25 competencies that they absolutely have to master,” Orr said. “We ask them to pick 15 of those and write a reflection about them, which becomes another artifact in their portfolio.”

A “My MPA” poster session during their second year is an opportunity for the students to showcase their work. Also invited are first-year and newly admitted students. “It helps them to tie the program together and see where they’re going,” Orr said.

BGSU students have the advantage of including in their portfolios materials from projects that address local needs. “We don’t just do papers and class projects,” Buhr said.

MPA classes have helped redesign the Wood County rural recycling program, conducted research for the Toledo Zoo, worked with the Toledo Metropolitan Council of Governments on a transportation project, helped United Way design its dental services for the aging program and done numerous projects for the Wood County Park District and Bowling Green Parks and Recreation.

Last year, students in a class on management of nonprofit organizations conducted a national survey on fundraising best practices for the Black Swamp Conservancy that they then turned into a journal article as a resource for other land conservancy groups.