Professor studies a South American university committed to excellence despite surrounding political and economic crisis

As more and more individuals and nations recognize how a global economy demands a more educated workforce and citizenry, there is increasing demand for higher education in all parts of the world. As basic economic theory would dictate, with increasing demand comes a market response in the form of increased supply. In the realm of higher education, this manifests itself as a proliferation of new colleges, universities and training centers, some public and many more private. Unfortunately, this rapid growth includes institutions of high quality and those of questionable capacity to provide the promised education.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in Latin America where the term “universidades garajes” (garage universities) has been coined to represent those providers which are essentially degree mills. Alongside high quality public and private colleges and universities are those lacking academic rigor, institutional capacity to deliver a higher education, and, in some cases, even a basic infrastructure. For a prospective student seeking a place to earn a degree as well as for the employer reviewing the credentials of a job applicant, it can be difficult to distinguish between them. In this environment, systems of quality assurance and accreditation are necessary to help students, their parents, employers of graduates, government and private funders, and other stakeholders to identify those deserving of their trust and resources from those which do not. While national systems of quality assurance and accreditation are being developed, expanded, and further institutionalized in almost every country in the region, certain institutions and programs also have their sights set on international accreditations. In some cases international accreditation is the only option due to the lack of an effective national system; in other instances it is pursued alongside of and in addition to national certifications. International accreditation is a seal of approval that helps universities and programs advance their goals of internationalization and promotes their goals of international exchanges and collaborations for faculty and students.

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Within the field of public affairs, NASPAA is the leading international accreditor and the only one recognized as an accreditor of public administration, public policy and public affairs by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). NASPAA has been accrediting master’s programs in the United States since 1986 and it expanded its scope to an international level with the adoption of new accreditation standards in 2009. As of this writing, 192 accredited programs in 178 universities in four countries are accredited by NASPAA. The next international applicant for NASPAA accreditation may well be from an unlikely place – Venezuela.

Venezuela is the northernmost country in South America, positioned on the Caribbean Sea and sharing borders with Colombia to the West, Brazil to the South, and Guyana to the East. It is a country of great beauty and tremendous biodiversity in its coastal, high plains, Amazon rain forest, and Andes regions. Unfortunately, it is also a country of tremendous political unrest and economic volatility. It is unclear whether the recent election of an opposition majority in the National Assembly will provide a formal (read, nonviolent and off the streets) means of balancing the power of President Nicolas Maduro (the handpicked successor of Hugo Chavez) and the military, or if it will heighten tensions and escalate conflicts. With an inflation rate predicted by the International Monetary Fund to reach 720% in 2016, poverty and violent crime are on the rise. According to the U.S. State Department Travel Warning, Venezuela has the 2nd highest homicide rate in the world and a burgeoning kidnapping industry. And yet, despite and amidst this turmoil, there is hope to be found in the educators who are still dedicating their time, energy and resources to ensuring that they are providing the highest quality education possible. One such example is found at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración (the Institute for Higher Education in Administration or IESA) in the Venezuelan capital city of Caracas.

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For two and one-half weeks during January of 2016, I had the opportunity to assist the Maestría en Gerencia Pública (what we would call a Master of Public Administration or MPA in English) at IESA in their preparation to seek NASPAA accreditation. I served as a consultant for the MPA program, meeting with faculty, staff, administrators, students and alumni, observing classes, and reviewing documents regarding the mission, curriculum, policies, and evaluation criteria and processes of the program. The NASPAA accreditation review process begins with the preparation of a detailed self-study report and is followed by in on-site visit from peers from other institutions and from the professional world of public service. During my visit, I instructed key individuals on the preparation of the self-study report and conducted a mock site visit.

IESA is not a comprehensive university as we generally think of in the United States. It does not offer undergraduate or doctoral degrees, but rather focuses exclusively on master’s level degrees and executive training program. It does not encompass a full range of disciplines, but rather includes only those related to administration. And it examines administration from the perspective of the interdependencies between and among the public, private and nonprofit sectors. The MPA program at IESA is designed to be accessible to current practicing administrators from all sectors who are interested in improving the quality of Venezuelan public policy and public management. The courses meet on Friday nights and weekends to accommodate individuals from outside the capital city, and IESA has an extensive system of scholarships and its own guaranteed financial aid (loans) to ensure that every qualified student can attend despite the dire economic conditions in the country. The program deliberately admits students from diverse political ideologies, regions of the country, levels of government, and sector of work, based on an understanding that only with the involvement of all will the serious problems of the country be surmountable.

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My work with the MPA program at IESA work was made possible by support from the Fulbright Specialist Program, a program of the United States Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars which is a division of the Institute of International Education. Under the Fulbright Specialist Program (FSP), U.S. scholars and professions are able to spend 2-6 weeks working with counterparts at host institutions overseas. As with all Fulbright programs, the goal is to use academics as cultural ambassadors to foster greater understanding, improved relations, and the potential for long-term collaborations on a bilateral basis. This was my second Fulbright experience, having previously been a Fulbright Scholar in at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia (see The Greater Good blog post dated November 21, 2014). Like the previous experience, this was an opportunity for mutual learning and for personal and professional reflection and development.

As with my experiences in accreditation reviews for programs throughout the United States and in other countries, I found there was much to learn from the MPA program at IESA which could be used to advance the program at Binghamton. I brought back ideas for teaching and grading, and new appreciation for the work of my colleagues in a much more challenging environment to provide a high quality public affairs education. I was struck by the level of dedication to country and to students by choosing to stay when they could pursue work in other countries. There has been a large exodus of professors and other highly skilled professionals, but those who remain are not simply those who lack the opportunity to leave, but rather those who see their best opportunity to make a difference by staying.

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Based on my experiences, I am confident that the MPA program at IESA will soon become the first NASPAA-accredited program in Latin America. I am also hopeful that the students who are being educated in this program will be leaders in the country’s transition to a more peaceful and stable state. This will be a much longer and more difficult process than the accreditation review, but the promise lies programs such as the one offered at IESA. Here I saw skillful faculty facilitators and a deliberate program design bring together fervent Chavistas and ardent opposition leaders to work side by side as team members and to engage in civil discourse of public policy problems and solutions. The problems of the 21st century demand highly qualified public service professionals, and NASPAA accreditation is one way to ensure that programs are meeting the highest international standards of quality.

Author:

Nadia Rubaii, Associate Professor of Public Administration, Binghamton University, nadia.rubaii@binghamton.edu

About the Public Administration Department

The Master of Public Administration prepares students for leadership positions in public and nonprofit organizations through a program of study that emphasizes the development of strong analytical and communication skills and integrates the theory and practice of public administration. An MPA degree is ideal for students who are committed to public service, would like to be leaders in public and nonprofit organizations, and want to make a positive difference in the world.

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