Faculty Say Resource Constraints Led to Demise of Public Policy Minor

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This semester, Swarthmore College quietly announced its decision to phase out its public policy minor. While all students through the class of 2016 will be able to pursue the interdisciplinary minor, though without the thesis option, those students in the class of 2017 and after will not be able to minor in public policy.

“The problem was that it’s supported by the existing departments” said current program chair and economics professor John Caskey. “Unless you have faculty members who are really enthusiastic to lead the charge you can lose some of its enthusiasm from the teaching and leading side.”

“In recent years not many departments [were] participating and it was not many faculty’s top priority,” said economics professor and former program chair Ellen Magenheim.

Both attributed this lagging enthusiasm in part to the addition of the environmental studies program as well as to what Caskey termed “resource constraints.”

“When I lead public policy theses, I’m not teaching a course in economics. Now the courses become bigger and there’s somewhat less selection. The econ department has to ask why are we hurting our own students when we’re benefiting students in other departments? Why are we committing faculty time to support this other thing?”

Another reason behind the program’s phase-out is the feeling, according to some, that public policy is perhaps better-suited to graduate studies. “Public policy is always a tough thing to teach because we’re a liberal arts college, not a professional school,” said political science professor Ben Berger, noting that some professional schools have entire public policy departments.

The public policy program required students to take three courses—in economic, political, and quantitative analysis, respectively—to participate in a policy-related summer internship, and to complete a thesis during their senior year.

“I initially chose [the public policy program] because I really enjoyed taking public econ and wanted to have a chance to take some of the econ and political science classes that interested me in a formal way,” Andi Merritt ’13 said.

Merritt, a Math/Statistics major, spent a summer at the Nature Conservancy researching shale gas best-management policies, and extended this investigation to form her public policy thesis.

“It’s been one of the defining features of my time at Swarthmore,” she continued, “I’ve enjoyed taking the courses and really got a lot out of the intern experience and writing the thesis.”

While participation varied year-to-year—the class of 2012 had 15 public policy minors and the class of 2013 will have only eight—the public policy minor has found consistent popularity among Swatties like Merritt who want to learn more about policy issues in addition to their primary field of study.

“I think this is an evolutionary step,” Magenheim said, speaking about the multiple avenues still in place through which students can gain exposure to public policy issues, including the environmental studies program.

Caskey agreed but added: “I think [its discontinuation] is a little bit of a shame. […] It’s been here ever since I’ve been here, about 20 years, and it’s been pretty strong.”

The College reviewed the public policy program formally three years ago. According to Caskey, instead of giving it an unconditional renewal,  what “they decided was to give us another year […] while they thought about it.” This year, the administration announced their decision to discontinue the program.

Both Caskey and Magenheim emphasized that, despite the end of the public policy minor, all of the courses students chose for their public policy emphasis would continue to be offered within their respective departments.

“I think that there’s such an emphasis on policy analysis, […] I feel like students have a lot of good opportunities,” Magenheim said. “If I didn’t think that was true, I would be upset.”

For Merritt’s part, she does feel some sadness about the upcoming end of the program: “I think it’s a shame,” she said. “The opportunity to be paid to do an interesting policy internship is really valuable and I would argue that neither [political science nor economics] is really able to get completely at public policy—you really have to be doing an internship or writing a paper.”

Image courtesy of Swarthmore College.

1 Comment

  1. While I’m not versed in the particular issues surround this question, I do think that we as a campus community should take note of what happened to the Public Policy program as we consider our other interdisciplinary programs. Based solely on this article, it would appear that a major contributing factor to the failure of the Public Policy minor was a lack of dedicated faculty, This stresses the importance of hiring faculty whose job titles include the name of the interdisciplinary program, not just professors in an associated department who happen to teach courses related to the program.

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