Keith Nitta joined the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences (IAS), and the faculty teaching in IAS’s Master of Arts in Policy Studies (MAPS) program, in 2008. As an education policy researcher, he is committed to producing research that responds to the concerns of both policymakers and practitioners. As an educator, his classes often feature community-based learning as a means of advancing civic and community engagement.
Under Keith’s leadership, the Policy Studies program recently undertook a significant revision of its curriculum. Launched this Fall, the new program enables students to complete their master’s degree in twelve months of intensive, full-time study. The revised curriculum focuses on core policy analysis, research, and leadership skills, while integrating more applied learning, community engagement, and professional development.
Keith joined Miriam Bartha, IAS Director of Graduate Programs and Strategic Initiatives, to discuss the process, and what it has taught him.
MB: Keith, one of your areas of scholarly specialization is Organizations, Management, and Leadership. From that perspective, what’s the redevelopment process of Policy Studies been like for you?
KN: We went through a traditional strategic planning process: identifying values and thinking about program-wide learning goals. We involved a lot of different groups of people in those discussions: we were intentionally inclusive so that later on we would have more consensus. All that preparation paid off. By the time we reached the stage of writing up course syllabi and program memos for final approval, we had no controversy, because we had already talked through the trade-offs.
It’s also true that, as in the organizational change and leadership literature, there has to be a motivator, a policy entrepreneur – somebody who keeps the momentum of the project moving forward. The literature discusses a lot of strategies for that, but I think both you and I felt that pressure. Because realizing those changes isn’t anyone else’s main job other than ours. Everyone else has other things to worry about: classes, research, service responsibilities. As a result, without continual attention, very easily nothing could have happened.
MB: I see – the motivator is a figure, it’s actually a role, a person. It’s not an external circumstance or event, or a vision.
KN: That’s right, the motivator needs to be inside all the time, pushing the process forward. You can do it a lot of different ways: you and I did it differently. I was trying to mobilize the faculty—to keep all our resources and assets together, so to speak. You set the tasks and deadlines that we needed to hit. That kind of sharing is a good and normal way of approaching organizational change. Sometimes one person has to do all that and that can be exhausting.
MB: What aspects of the new program are you particularly excited about?
KN: Personally, I’m really interested in the new practicum course and requirement. I’m really interested in applied, community-oriented practice. For my teaching and my self-identity, that is important. I want to be in a program, at a school, in a class that is sensitive to the public good, that’s thinking about how we can contribute to our region and our community. I’m not going to be satisfied ever working at a place where there is an insular or self-interested perspective. Here in IAS I have colleagues who have similar values.
MB: In terms of community-oriented practice, are you cultivating particular types of partnerships, or is it open right now?
KN: In the short term, we’ll be working with individuals and organizations we —the Policy Studies program—have worked with before. In the medium to long term we’d like to be able to contribute to a larger effort here with other programs in IAS or campus wide.
For example, one of my partners now is Snohomish County Juvenile Court: one of our alums, Mike Irons, is the Program Manager there, working on what’s called diversion programming designed to keep kids out of the system. The MA in Cultural Studies program is also interested in issues of justice: two faculty members, Dan Berger and Kari Lerum, have led an initiative called The Decarceral State. In essence we are working in on the same topic, but on opposite sides of the coin. You could characterize the difference in approach as liberal and radical. The first asks, how can we shore up the existing system that we have as best we can, and, apply the best policy analysis to improve it? The other approach proposes to tear the system down and start over, because it’s inherently flawed. It’s the same topic, different approaches. If we can engage a larger frame where what we’re doing is in conversation with and in relation with what others are doing, then the contributions and potential for change are greater.
MB: What kind of students do you anticipate thriving in this program, and who do you hope the program will attract?
KN: Students who are ambitious and with motivations that reach beyond themselves. It could be an interest or motivation in a particular policy problem or solution. It might be a motivation around a particular group or a particular need they see. But that motivating passion is essential, because it can’t be taught. What we can do is help students improve their skills and think through the ways in which they might better contribute to the changes they want to see in the world. But to be alive, that learning has to be connected to yourself, your interests and aspirations, as a student.
In leadership development, there is a saying that the two qualities that we look for most in future leaders are Judgment and ambition. Those two in combination are wonderful: those two together create motivation and ambition for something outside the self.
MB: Isn’t that the question you faced regarding the program redesign group: how do I move this group of people towards something that is in the collective interest, the public good? The answers need to be connected to one’s self interest, no?
KN: That’s the essence of leadership, right there. If you are individually ambitious, and you set a goal that you can achieve by yourself, with no assistance, you don’t need to be a leader. You can be a sole, lone-wolf actor and get everything done that you want to get done. But there are very few organizational issues and problems that are at a scale that one person alone can address them.
What keeps me motivated, personally, is my students. One of my mentors, (Professor Emeritus) Diane Gillespie, helped me recognize this early on. And it’s true. If I see that something is going to be good for my students, I will fight for that. And, when I get discouraged or off track, I seek out my students, because it gives me energy and purpose. That helps me remember why I am doing what I am doing.
MB: What impact do you hope that the program and its students will have in the field, the region, or the world?
KN: I expect that the biggest impact will come from our alumni, as it has in the past. We will be putting our graduates back into our surrounding community as leaders with the professional skills to accomplish the tasks that they are asked to and want to accomplish. I want them to be principled and ethical decision makers. I expect them to do great things.
For our partners I want them to see the University as a partner and a resource. I’m more interested in the relationship than I am in the immediate product. We can help them to accomplish immediate goals, like writing a grant or doing a program evaluation, but in the medium to long-term, we want to build a common agenda with our partners, and serve as an anchor institution for the region.
MB: How is UW Bothell set up for this kind of role?
KN: We’re in a great position to do this work. We have a really diverse set of faculty with all different kinds of interests and expertise, and an even more diverse set of students. At both the program level and the school level we’ve done a very good job in being inclusive in how we draw students in. It makes me more confident that what we do will be better as a result. Our students are local and not particularly privileged. They have unique perspectives on policy and strong, grounded motivations as a result. In the program, we talk about things that go on in their lives—in all of our lives, really, because we live here. It’s a nice feel, a commonality, to it. And I think it promises to make policy making much more inclusive and participatory.