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Public policy department at SLU argues why it should not be eliminated

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 18, 2012 - The Saint Louis University department of public policy studies says that rather than be shut down, as a university report has recommended, it should be strengthened to help the university fulfill its urban mission and help train students to fill posts expected to become vacant in upcoming years.

Closing the department, according to a rebuttal to the recommendation circulated by the university's vice president for academic affairs, "would diminish Saint Louis University as an urban institution with a distinctly Jesuit mission of serving the region and its people. The university can better establish its national and international presence by embracing its historical mission of thinking globally and acting locally."

A memo circulated on campus last month said that the university's trustees would consider at their February meeting recommendations to cut the departments of public policy and counseling and family therapy. Reasons cited for closure included low enrollment, poor productivity by faculty and changes needed to reach its goal of becoming one of the top 50 universities in the nation.

Faculty members have until Jan. 27 to comment on the proposals. SLU spokesman Clayton Berry said neither the comments nor any revisions to the recommendations would be made public prior to the trustees' meeting.

If the recommendations are approved, the programs would end June 30, 2015. Before that, next July 1, the College of Education and Public Service would be renamed the College of Education and Social Work, with the School of Social Work becoming a department in the new school.

As part of the proposal, SLU would admit no more students into more than a dozen programs, including the doctoral program in public policy analysis; the master's programs in public administration, urban affairs and urban planning and real estate development; the bachelor's program in urban affairs; and several programs in family therapy.

In its rebuttal, the department said that instead of being shut down, the department should expand the focus of its doctoral program and other graduate programs by increasing collaboration and should increase the number of its undergraduate programs. It acknowledged that ending the master's program in urban affairs and examining ways to streamline costs and increase revenue were worthwhile goals.

Noting the university's push to be rated as one of the top schools in the United States, the response concluded:

"However commendable or realistic it may be for the university to increase its stature to the point that it will be viewed as one of the top 50 national universities, under no circumstances would that goal be advanced by the termination of graduate programs in public policy, public administration and urban planning or by diluting their quality. It erodes the value of a graduate degree and diminishes the status of the institution that awards it.

"The Department of Public Policy Studies continues to make a valuable contribution to the university and region for a quarter century. Its academic programs are well attended and highly regarded nationally. It produces a healthy profit or 'margin' for the university, and it is poised to move into the international arena with its graduate offerings. The kinds of scholarship pursued by its faculty -- both funded and unfunded -- play to both the university's commitment to basic and applied research."

Serving the Community

Efforts to build support for the public policy studies department began almost as soon as the original recommendation made the rounds on campus. Besides submitting its formal response, the department has worked to have those outside the university come to its defense.

Robert Cropf, head of the public policy department (and a frequent contributor to the Beacon) said that he and his colleagues are ready to work with university officials to improve the recommendations before they are submitted to the board for approval.

"It is in the best interests of all concerned that the university achieve its stated goal of becoming a top 50 university," he said. "We think that this could be best achieved through continuing the departments of public policy studies, and counseling and family therapy, two departments that embody the university's mission of service and social justice."

Joe Cavato, a former director of planning for St. Louis County who now works in real estate development, said university graduates have helped play key roles in urban projects in St. Louis.

"Saint Louis U. is such a wonderful venue for this," said Cavato, who has a degree in business from the university and has taken graduate courses there. "Not only has it achieved academic and research capacities that we need to support this industry, but it is located in the city and has chosen to stay in the city and develop in the city. It's like its own experiment in urban development."

Cavato is part of an urban planning real estate advisory board to the university and works in urban redevelopment. He said his varied background has helped him in his career, and the university's program provides a similar eclectic experience.

"What they bring is a knowledge of the precepts of urban policy," he said. "We want to create a nexus between the academic planning function and the redevelopment function for the private sector, so people in our business who are trying to develop urban programs would be grounded not only in urban planning but also in real estate development."

He said he could not speak to the metrics used to gauge what programs should stay open, but his experience in the field has shown him that training at SLU is valuable.

"Our perception is that this is an important program to the school," Cavato said. "We would be most interested in talking about how issues can be addressed and resolved. This is the only urban planning graduate program in the region."

The Formal Response

In its defense, the department of public policy studies said it agrees with the "silo-free intellectual concept" promoted in the recommendations. Further, it argued that few programs at SLU have worked to support a broader vision of training than it has. It also noted that graduate degrees offered by the department can help prepare people for positions in city government that will be in demand in coming years.

"As the only graduate urban planning degree in Missouri," the department's report said, "Saint Louis University is poised to take advantage of this growing and popular field. Finally, all indications are that the impending retirement of large numbers of baby boomers from the academy will provide robust job opportunities for Ph.D.'s entering the academic job market over the next few years."

It added suggestions on how the university can use the department to fulfill the "Jesuit mission of using our knowledge to serve and improve the lives of others."

Rather than shut down the department, it said the university should expand graduate programs and make them more available to other units throughout SLU. It said increased collaboration with a master's degree program in sustainability would expand that focus. It also said the department's undergraduate course offerings should grow.

Acknowledging the need for some retrenchment, it said the master's degree in urban affairs and several other small graduate programs that it shares with other departments could close because of lack of interest. And it proposed "an extensive internal review of the budgets for the last five years to determine other areas where costs can be cut and revenues enhanced."

That said, the response also challenged the figures used to reach the conclusion that the department of public policy studies should be cut. It said the metrics and methodology do not measure everything that is important; the numbers used were incomplete or inaccurate; and expectations of performance were not spelled out in advance or are too heavy of a burden.

"The important point to be drawn from this presentation is this," the response said. "The data do not support the contention that overall enrollments are down in the department's graduate classes. The major omission in the report came from not counting the widespread draw of public policy classes from collaborating degree programs."

The response took particular exception to comments about "part-time" students in public policy graduate programs. The original report said that "a disproportionately high enrollment of part-time students will negatively impact revenue, expenses, time and effort required, as well as scholarly productivity."

In rebuttal, the public policy response acknowledged that part-time students take longer to complete their degree programs, adding:

"Rather than apologize for this mission, we embrace the principles embodied in the current configurations of degree programs. The degree programs currently under scrutiny were designed to serve as an incubator for the professional aspirations of the region's young and mid-career adults and as a testing ground for solutions to the area's economic, environmental and social problems. These programs attract people from public, business and nonprofit arenas. Their graduates fill a myriad of public offices, administrative posts, teaching and research positions and planning positions. They make a difference in urban regions all over the nation, not just here in St. Louis. Further, given the region's emphasis on stemming the brain drain caused by young people leaving the St. Louis area, our programs encourage both professional development 'in place' and subsequently putting down roots in the region."

The department concluded that "we do take issue, however, with the implication that Saint Louis University is not interested in serving the professional communities that are committed to urban and community development, urban and regional planning, public administration, and the creation of sustainable communities."

In purely financial terms, attempting to determine the university's return on investment for programs in the department of public policy, the response said its operating margins "were never less than 50 percent, the unrealistically high bar" set by the vice president in his report. It added:

"Few Fortune 500 corporations make a 50 percent profit in one year, much less every year. Any private sector firm would be very enthused about the generation of the department's performance figures."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.