By Raymond Cox
Each year, local government managers apply the wealth of knowledge and insights they have gained in the management profession by sharing that knowledge with students in colleges and universities. In the April 2016 issue of PM magazine, Sam Gaston, chairman of the ICMA Advisory Board on Graduate Education (ABGE), wrote an article on why managers should consider teaching (“Why I Teach”).
Having served ABGE for 15 years, promoting the teaching aspect has been an important part of my work on the advisory board. My role in writing this article is to address the question of why we in universities need managers in the classroom.
Need for a Practical Outlook
At a certain level, each college and university needs more faculty—both full-time and part-time members. Those needs go beyond troubling concerns about supply and demand to real issues of the quality of education offered in professional degree programs.
Even if a pressing need for faculty did not exist, there will always be a need for skilled and dedicated practitioners in the classroom. Especially in such professional degree programs as an MPA, there is a need for that practical—and realistic—outlook that only those in the profession can provide.
This begs the question about how a manager can contribute in the classroom. Aristotle famously noted almost two and half millennia ago that some things must be observed and experienced to be understood. He was talking about ethics and ethical behavior, but I think the comment is equally pertinent to a range of organizational and interpersonal relationships.
Therein lies the issue for those looking for good teachers for MPA programs. For certain types of courses that are often at the core of MPA curricula (e.g., budgeting, personnel, intergovernmental relations, management), expertise is as likely to be the product of equal parts education and experience.
For years, MPA programs, especially those that recruit midcareer students, have relied on working professionals who teach part time. Some in universities, especially those who are not in professional degree programs, view this as detrimental to the quality of the programs and degree.
Even those in professional programs view the use of nontraditional faculty as more of a budgetary necessity than as a key to enhancing the quality of the academic training. Yet that is what I am suggesting: The use of skilled and experienced working professionals may be the key to enhancing the quality of the academic experience of students.
Who better to guide students—even the experienced, midcareer student—to understanding, than those doing the work? What adjuncts offer is the understanding that they have gained through their experience.
Nothing will substitute for that experience, though the student will have to experience the workplace before the lessons will be fully understood. When working professionals share their stories and their insights, then students are one step closer to developing the understanding needed to be a “professional” themselves.
All of this is a long way around to suggesting that adjuncts are critical to our teaching mission. Their frequent lack of academic “credentials” might be a problem inside the academy. But their knowledge, judgment, and understanding makes them an important and vital resource. Student evaluations often comment positively on how much they learned from the “professional” teacher.
A now long-since-departed friend, Ralph Hummel wrote a paper years ago entitled “The Stories Managers Tell.” In that work, Ralph emphasized the critical importance of the experiences of managers in both shaping their management perspective, but also their understanding of what it means to manage people and things.
Those are stories that faculty members cannot offter because they lack the experiences with which to weave a story. Ralph’s point also goes to the heart of this discussion. Stories are a means of conveying information, often critical information, by explaining it through behaviors and interactions.
What makes a good teacher? For a professional degree program, it is having faculty members who can translate their own experiences into living examples of how to understand the nature, culture, and rhythms of the workplace.
While not everyone has the time or the inclination to become a part-time faculty member, those who have the desire to teach represent a vital resource for any professional program.
Students need to see (and hear) what is the latest and the best in the management profession. Practitioners—you are much more likely to know best practice and therefore be on the cutting edge than professors. In other words, the academy needs you.