SADOW: UNO’s Political Science PhD Program Is Worth Keeping

We interrupt an important election season and therefore also a steadily-building backlog of local and state policy issues that deserve (and will get) discussion to bring you what may seem trivial to many, but which is near and dear to my heart: the University of New Orleans looks to want to move forward with the elimination of its doctoral degree in political science. On the whole, there are better alternatives that should be pursued.

It’s hard to blame UNO, battered as it has been by the aftermath of the hurricane disaster of 2005. Not only the considerable physical damage done to the campus that prevented holding traditionally-delivered classes for months and cost so much to repair that siphons money still, but also and worse were the demographic changes that sapped enrollment. UNO was designed explicitly to serve as an urban university geared towards non-traditional students, and when that market became somewhat hollowed by the disaster, enrollment tumbled and today is barely half of where it was a decade ago, exacerbated by the ongoing effort to right-size the overbuilt higher education sector in Louisiana, which shifted more revenue-raising to tuition rather than from taxpayers, making enrollment an even bigger factor in funding.

As a result, the school engaged in a self-study to determine which programs to retain or to restructure in order to bring costs more in line with identifiable revenue generating activities. That report has been issued, with the president Peter Fos to deliver the final recommendations to the University of Louisiana System in December. A couple of dozen programs are recommended to be reconfigured, and a few eliminated.

One is the political science Ph.D. From a distance, I have seen the department get whittled down by the unfavorable confluence of the disaster and that a key core of faculty members then were at the point that retirement seemed preferable shortly after Katrina hit, rather than dealing with the huge headaches ahead, for which they should receive no blame. This made it more difficult to deliver the doctorate, as well as to attract both faculty members to teach in it and for students to choose it. By way of background, in Louisiana there is one private school with the degree in New Orleans, Tulane, and two public schools in Baton Rouge with it, Louisiana State and Southern (although the latter’s degree technically is in a related field, Public Policy).

By these metrics, it well may make sense to shut down the program, which would not happen for several years in any event as all students presently in it would be allowed to complete their degrees. Yet I think there is a case to keep it, when weighing other factors such as mission and the ability to reap cost savings in other areas.

Principally, the state and New Orleans area can use and have benefitted from having this program. While most similar programs across the country are of a traditional mold – having full-time students coming right out of bachelors and masters programs in political science from across the country – UNO’s typically had a higher proportion of non-traditional and part-time students, partly because of the university’s mission, partly because of its young status (it’s only about 40 years old) where “traditional” students were drawn first to other established departments and programs with (the guiding rule in academia for terminal degrees being not so much actual teaching or research merit but) reputations. Without trying to oversimplify or distort the nature of program as exemplified by its students with their varied life stories and motivations, among Ph.D. programs in political science it had more of a blue- than white-collar background.

Consider this fairly representative example. A guy comes to New Orleans with a Masters of Business Administration degree from a prestigious university to work for a bank holding company. But after a while he begins to discover he’s less interested in overseeing that bank official items are processed correctly and more interested in his undergraduate studies in political science. So he considers doing graduate work in that area while working full time, to see what’s up.

There’s Tulane, for which he met the entrance requirements, although it’s really pricey and, having paid for his own schooling to this point, which he rather would avoid shelling out so much for if possible. And if he decided to chuck his business career and go into academia, there’s the issue of what the department would think of his having an MBA and not an M.A. in political science, which could mandate many more courses being taken at high cost (although chances were excellent he could secure a stipend, at least eventually, to pay for some or all of that) or even reluctance to let him in the program because of that.

And then there’s UNO, with much less expensive instruction as well as seemingly being a jewel in the rough; in that era, it turned out that UNO’s political science faculty had one of the highest per capita research publication rates in the country. Better, it offered many of its courses at night for a working stiff like him. So he went in that direction.

A year later, he went on full assistantship and left banking to pursue full-time study, joining among others who had made the same choice a former librarian and lawyer. Three years later, he had his first faculty gig, before even graduating a year after. A quarter of a century later, he had taught thousands of students, published a few things here and there, made lots of presentations at scholarly conferences, become a source in his area of expertise that got him quoted in a dozen national newspapers, two national television networks, several foreign newspapers and broadcasters, besides all sorts of state and local media, authored ongoing opinion columns printed/posted in several outlets around the state, and wrote an award-winning blog on Louisiana politics now running nearly a decade. And even infamous enough to have this done to him.

OK, you know this guy. But there are many others who share this degree with me who also have made substantive contributions inside and outside of academia. I use in one of my classes the textbook a couple co-authored (with a UNO department member). Another pair co-authored the (to date) definitive work on voting behavior in New Orleans in the post-civil rights era. Another has featured with me in the academic debate about the legacy of David Duke on the impact of voting behavior as it related to Gov. Bobby Jindal. Those are just the projects I have been connected to at least in a small way. And I’m not the only one of us used as a media source in the state.

And what you may not know is the profound impact on the instruction of political science at Louisiana universities that UNO political science Ph.D.’s have had. While it changes every year, for most of the past 20 years among the political science faculties in state schools, the pedigree most prevalent has been UNO’s. More broadly, off the top of my head, nationwide (and worldwide) I can think of two dozen program graduates teaching at the university level, and a couple of more who once did but no longer do so.

Personal histories and testimonies aside, by offering a Ph.D. in political science, UNO has met a need. Not only does the program have a history of attracting and graduating students that, for reasons of personal circumstances, may not otherwise have been in position to pursue these studies otherwise, but it also enabled them to become contributors to the profession and their communities, in Louisiana in particular. Surely it’s a niche that this program of study can continue to serve, if properly reinvigorated, that also can make economic sense.

This space has argued more forcefully than any other from within Louisiana higher education about the need to induce efficiency into the state’s higher education delivery, including pruning academically suspect, duplicative, and less-needed programs as part of that. Nonetheless, and regardless that I am a 1990 Ph.D. graduate of UNO in political science, I can’t help but think the merits of continuing the degree outweigh its costs. Fos, the ULS Board, and the Board of Regents should strive to reorganize resources and to secure the commitments necessary to keep the program going in a way that otherwise does not imperil UNO’s mission. Indeed, delivery of this political science Ph.D. enhances that.

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