This summer, a group of MPP students immersed themselves policy theory, legal doctrine, and professional skill development in a new PPL 891 Issues in Public Policy course titled “Legal Environment of Public Policymaking and Administration.” The online course was designed and taught by Matt Zalewski, a Fourth-Year Ph.D. student in American Politics, Policy, and Methodology, who also holds a juris doctorate degree and spent six years both as a law clerk and Assistant City Attorney for the City of Dearborn, Michigan. Matt’s combined experience of practicing law in an in-house governmental setting and his training in political science guided a holistic approach to the course that bridged academic theory to real-world practice and professional skills the students can take into their careers.
The theme of the course emphasized how the letter of the law, the legal structure of political institutions, and the individuals charged with interpreting law and policy affect the daily lives of policy practitioners and define the universe of policy possibilities within a given jurisdiction or policy area. This theme remained a point-of-reference as students intensively examined federal administrative law, judicial process and behavior, federalism, local government autonomy, the freedom of information act, and the rights and immunities of governments and government employees. Each unit featured a blend of reading drawn from case law, political science, policy studies, and government publications. In his lectures, Zalewski used his experience and examples of his work in law and policy to bring life to the reading, to challenge students to understand differences between textbook accounts of policy and how it plays out in the world, to show how real-world practice could be aided by drawing upon academic theory, and also to encourage students to recognize that the most aggressive and efficient advocacy of one’s policy objectives often takes into consideration the many potential forces acting against that policy such that the policymaker must be thinking strategically about maximizing policy outcomes. In the process, Zalewski also provided practice tips for successfully navigating bureaucracies and building productive relationships in the policy community. By engaging this broad range of topics from a strategic perspective, students developed a comprehensive view of the legal context that they will be operating within as policy makers, policy administrators, or policy advocates, and how that legal context will affect their policy goals.
Students not only developed a thought process that will be valuable in their policy work, but applied it to a range of hands-on activities designed to build skills they can bring directly to their future employers. During the semester students wrote mock court opinions, wrote a policy strategy memo, drafted and responded to a Freedom of Information Act request, and produced short research projects on policy or administrative topics relevant to their career interests. Additionally, students were given two administrative decision-making simulations that presented students with real-life facts and forced them to stand in the shoes of administrators, make a decision, and vigorously defend it so that it can withstand potential legal challenges. All of these assignments required students to engage factual scenarios that were often drawn directly from Zalewski’s real-world experiences, real court cases, or news headlines. Just as in the real world, these scenarios were often complicated, landed in gray areas of the law, and at times even presented uncomfortable facts. Through exposure to these situations, the students gained an appreciation of the pressures and uncertainties they will be faced with in the policy world and developed the tools necessary to engage those situations deliberatively and confidently.
Ultimately, the students exceeded Matt’s expectations. He notes, “Each of the students put a tremendous effort into this course and demonstrated a remarkably sophisticated level of engagement with the issues in high-quality written product. Given the complexity of the material and intensity of the semester, I was beyond impressed at each of the students’ abilities to be self-starters and to deliver such mature results with very minimal outside help from me. If I were an employer, I would enthusiastically hire any one of these students, and would be very confident in the completeness and accuracy of their work. I was delighted to have the opportunity to work with all of them this summer.”