Op-eds, Opinions

Colby ’20, Grassfield ’19, Klein ’20: Don’t delete the public policy concentration

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Op-Ed Contributors
Sunday, November 25, 2018

In a report circulated to students in an early October email, the Office of the Dean of the College proposed the combination of Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs’ three undergraduate concentrations into one concentration, which would be the third largest concentration at Brown. This proposal, which merges public policy, international relations and development studies, strips each concentration of its unique characteristics and agglomerates them into an entirely unremarkable patchwork of onerous requirements that lack direction. By merging what are unique fields of study, it is clear that Watson seriously undervalues public policy as a concentration and disregards American public policy as a topic that warrants individualized study. In sum, Watson’s proposal undermines Brown’s core values — interdisciplinary coursework, individualized education and student engagement.

In an era of polarized politics, with a president whose proposals are ambiguous and whose claims are unsubstantiated, there has perhaps never been a greater need for professionals who have the skills to understand exactly how public policy affects people and communities. The University’s public policy concentration educates students to become these much-needed public policy professionals by allowing them to study the life cycle of the American policy making process, from the passage of policies to their implementation and effects. By choosing a focus on a specific policy issue, students gain a deep and nuanced understanding of America’s urban, environmental or health policies, among others.

In this political environment, which is increasingly devoid of fact, students have recognized the importance of an education in public policy. After Donald Trump became president in 2016, the number of graduating public policy concentrators doubled from 21 to 42. For years, the University recognized the distinct value in studying U.S. policy. But the new proposal reverses years of institutional policy and ignores the desires and interests of many students — and the broad needs of the United States. We, as public policy concentrators, urge the administration and Watson’s faculty leadership to recognize one thing: Public policy’s main strength comes directly from what the new report claims is its weakness, namely its distinct focus “on U.S. policy.”

The proposed concentration has an overwhelming focus on international issues, essentially removing a student’s ability to concentrate on American public policy at Brown. Of the five proposed required core courses, none are focused on the American context; the proposal goes as far as to suggest that an existing class, PLCY 0100: “Introduction to Public Policy,” change its coursework to become more international. The proposal also suggests that students might be required to take three years of a foreign language, which would strongly deter and place an unnecessary burden on students who simply wish to study U.S. public policy. Three years of a language can take up to 20 percent of a concentrator’s classes at Brown, and the proposal does nothing to justify such onerous requirements for students wishing to focus on the American context. Yes, a study of American policy would be enhanced by more internationally focused classes and foreign languages, but requiring this many classes goes too far. In essence, this new proposal deletes the public policy concentration as we know it and makes it impossible for students to concentrate in American public policy.

The proposal undermines Brown’s open curriculum by making it almost impossible for students to pursue other areas of interest. The public policy concentration requires students to take courses in at least three different policy areas and is inherently multidisciplinary. It also provides students with a strong theoretical, quantitative and ethical background through its five core courses. However, apart from those few requirements, concentrators have the ability to explore the policy issues that interest them — with the option to take electives in over a dozen different departments. With 10 requirements plus a senior capstone, the current public policy concentration offers students the flexibility to pursue a double concentration. Two of us are currently double concentrators. The new proposal, on the other hand, requires students to take as many as 20 classes and thus makes it nearly impossible to double-concentrate. Ultimately, public policy at Brown typifies the open curriculum: It allows students to pursue their passions for politics and policy without sacrificing their interests in other subject areas. By contrast, the proposed concentration undermines Brown’s core values with its burdensome list of requirements.

While Watson has attempted to dodge student concerns by stating that a committee of Watson faculty “has not yet finalized its review or begun drafting its recommendations,” no further information has been released. In addition, given that a new proposal is expected to be released next month, we are skeptical that the Watson committee will sufficiently account for student criticisms. Therefore, we believe it is important to critique the Dean of the College’s proposal in its current state.

Despite the gravity of this proposal and its outsized effects on the public policy concentration, Watson has done the bare minimum to solicit input from students. On Oct. 12, 2018, students in all three Watson concentrations received a surprising email from Watson leadership with the subject line “Watson Undergraduate Town Hall Meetings.” Upon first glance, the email seemed like one of Watson’s frequent promotional emails. If one spent time reading further, however, this nondescript email revealed the new and drastic proposal. Hidden in plain sight within a hyperlink at the email’s end was a document labeled “2018 Watson Committee Recommendations” that, in 25 pages, mainly argued one thing: all three Watson concentrations should be consolidated into one. No further effort has been made to explain the proposal in detail to concentrators and only three, hour-long town halls have been held to solicit feedback from students who made an independent effort to understand the gravity of the attached proposal. It does not seem that Watson has a genuine interest in gauging students’ reactions to the proposal. Watson’s lack of transparency and effective outreach to students when making fundamental decisions about the structure of their chosen education is just one of the new proposal’s many failures. We argue not only that the proposal ignores student wants but also that its broadcast has not afforded students the opportunity to understand the gravity of these institutional changes. Watson has a responsibility to openly seek student input beyond coded emails and poorly publicized town hall meetings.

While many of our peers, including public policy concentrators, still remain unaware of this major transformation due to Watson’s inadequate outreach, we believe there is time to demand that public policy remain an independent discipline. There has never been a more important time to have a public policy concentration at Brown to teach students about the intricacies of U.S. public policy. While there is room for improvement in the current concentration, this new proposal deletes the public policy concentration entirely. Watson, in a continuation of its piecemeal efforts to gauge students’ feelings about the proposal, has opened a Google Form where students can provide feedback on their concentrations. We implore public policy students and the broader Brown community to criticize the proposal through that form or by emailing watson-director@brown.edu.

Owen Colby ’20, Eve Grassfield ’19 and Noah Klein ’20 are all public policy  concentrators. They can be reached at owen_colby@brown.edu, eve_grassfield@brown.edu and noah_klein@brown.edu, respectively. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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