Professor Albert Price has been a part of the University of Michigan-Flint for the past 35 years. In that time he has served as professor and chair in political science, director of the masters of public administration program (MPA), pre-law advisor, and interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS).
Dr. Price will retire this summer. He reflects on his time here and his hopes for the future of CAS and UM-Flint in this excerpted interview with CAS communication specialist Amy Hartwig.
How long and in what capacities have you served the College of Arts & Sciences?
I’m completing my 35th year this year. I’ve gone through the ranks of assistant, associate, and full professor over that time. I’ve also been MPA director at UM-Flint on and off for something like 24 years of the 35 years that the program has been in existence. And I also have served as the pre-law advisor at UM-Flint from 1994 until I came to this office in 2013. From 2013 to the present I’ve been the interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Also in that mix, during a period from 1996 to 2002, I was the creator and co-host of a television program on WFUM called Roadkill Politics. The show covered local and national politics dealing with alternative viewpoints that were not widely distributed in the mainstream media. The tapes of all those programs are now in the library.
What role was your favorite and why?
My favorite role has been professor, just teaching in the classroom. That’s the thing I enjoy the most. I like encouraging people to think about topics in ways they might not otherwise have considered. I think that’s one of the things I’ve actually done well in my life. That is, to be a kind of an academic translator. Because often times the abstractions which are necessary for some of the systematic thinking about complex intellectual issues are not easily grasped by students who have not been prepared in those, and I think that’s always fun to see people get the idea and say “oh, I can challenge this.” It’s not so much to give them anything or saying “here’s the answer,” but to get them to think about how to find the information that will answer the questions. To make them lifelong independent learners—I’ve really enjoyed that role.
Did any of the skills you learned from being a professor translate to your administrative positions?
It definitely helped—the more you learn about the world, the more you learn about the sometimes difficult paths that our students have had to take to get to their situations. If anything it has helped me to become more compassionate about the needs of others and to try to humanize the bureaucratic experience that students sometimes face. I saw myself in that role: as a mediator between the rigidity of the rules of both law school in terms of being able to be admitted but also the university in terms of helping a student to be able to complete their degree, even though it may take them a long time. I’ve had some students, particularly in the undergraduate public administration program, who took many years because they were already employed somewhere and were only taking one course a semester. To follow along and help those people meet their requirements so that they could complete their degree—that was very satisfying. So I think the learning academically helped enrich my ability to respond bureaucratically in the roles where I had authority and responsibility over some things.
What initially drew you to UM-Flint?
It was the job. Being able to be at a regional campus of the University of Michigan. And, for me—and I didn’t even know it at the time—it was a really excellent fit intellectually. The job was to help develop a potential criminal justice track in the MPA program and eventually assume a leadership role in the MPA. So the combination of public law and the application of public law in a way that would be consistent with public administration were here from the beginning. So, for me, it was just perfect because I studied applied public law which is the impact of public law in the actual world and how people get sentenced in courts, or how courts are organized, how prisons operate, how legislatures interact with the criminal justice process by changing law. I don’t think I could have intellectually articulated that when I first took the job—I was just looking for a job teaching public administration. But this one happened to be doing exactly what my interests were in political science and public administration.
So you’ve spent your whole career at UM-Flint?
Yes. In fact, this is a strange time in my life because for the first time since the fall of 1970, I’m not going to be going to college in the fall. I went and never left! I’ve been in college my whole adult life.
Have you seen the relationship between the Flint community and the university evolve during your time here?
Actually it’s kind of getting back to almost what it was before. It’s heading “back to the future” almost, in a strange way. When I first got here Ellis Perlman and Peter Gluck were both political science faculty involved in public administration. And they had been deeply involved in community and agency activity. We would go to lunch and things like that and they would introduce me to people. They knew pretty much everybody in the local government and non-profit world. So they introduced me to them and some of my students also were already involved. Some of the first people in my classes at UM-Flint were Bob Emerson, he was a state representative at the time and he went on to be a state senator but also budget director for the State of Michigan under the whole period of the Granholm administration; John Cherry was a student who went on to be lieutenant governor; Deb Cherry was a student who went on to be the treasurer of Genesee County. Other people have gone on to be leaders of organizations throughout the region so that has been really good. That was early on in my career that I knew people involved in all sorts of organizations. So it was almost organic, at least in the field in which I have interest, that people from my department, from the discipline, have been involved in the community. I think that dissipated a little bit as the place grew. And maybe it was the proclivities of our faculty changing. But I think as Flint has declined, people tended to move farther away and that led to a kind of a lack of connection or organic knowledge of the place. We’re seeing now that it’s re-combining. I think the new Chancellor is on board with that idea of really integrating the community into all that we do. I think it’s a good direction and I think it got lost for a little while. My expectations are that people of the discipline in which I am involved will be connected to agencies and programs around the area.
What benefits do you see from those connections for our students?
A couple of different things: they get practical experience through working on projects if they are doing research with a faculty member. They get, through the internship programs, access to agencies and the more the agencies know the people who are involved in UM-Flint the more likely they are to encourage our students to get internships, and then maybe turn those internships into opportunities for jobs.
Plus, it enriches the pedagogy of class. We’re moving a little more towards a traditional aged population with our dorms and early college, but at the same time we have people in our classes who are actually experienced in the field in which they are getting an education. You can really learn a lot from the students we have in our classes. That’s an opportunity both for other students and the faculty members to learn more about how the world works outside of the academic study of it.
Our students benefit by seeing what’s occurring in the world, but also being able to then link that to an academic structure or framework from which they can make conclusions about what to do or how to help. Almost all the agencies and organizations need people who are competent to think critically and make decisions and try to help resolve some of the problems in our area and region.
What do you think the College of Arts & Sciences has in its future?
I see the college returning to its roots of being more integrated into the community, and more than it ever has been before. We’ve hired a number of young faculty in the past couple of year who have that focus: to be engaged in the community. That’s gratifying, to see a return to Flint as opposed to seeing Flint as just a place to teach. I see UM-Flint, and the College of Arts and Sciences in particular, as the intellectual home of an interdisciplinary problem solving apparatus that can impact the world. And I think that’s what we ought to be doing. We tend to focus on disciplines and academic life, people identify as a Political Scientist or a Geologist – whatever their training is – problems are more complex that that, they have a number of interacting variables. What we really need is to look at a problem and see which disciplines can impact that and in what ways and focus those disciplines on that problem. I see that as a real opportunity. We’ve got so many things that we can look at here that need to be addressed, and we have a bunch of really smart people, and students who want to do things. This is really an opportunity to engage our students in real-world problem solving “out there” instead of “in here” with our faculty as intellectual guides who are also learning themselves.
What are you most proud of from your time at UM-Flint?
The thing about which I have the greatest pride is probably undeserved. And it is being part of the process that allows people to accomplish what they do in their lives. So seeing the graduates of the MPA program, the undergraduates in public administration, and being the pre-law advisor, to see people go off into the world and actually have responsibilities in things, to do things important in the world, that feels good. Even though you’re only partly related to it. I can’t go to a meeting or an organization or an agency in this area without running into somebody who was either in my classes or was in the MPA program or was in undergraduate public administration. So to have been involved in the preparation of people for the work that they’ve done in the world has been pretty satisfying, and humbling. You can’t claim credit or blame when people do things, but to have been engaged in the process of getting to people to where they are, where they can impact the world, that is pretty gratifying.
What advice or encouragement do you have for students?
Take your education seriously, embrace it. It isn’t a hoop to jump through; it’s something that, if you embrace it, can lead to a better understanding of yourself and a better understanding of the world. We do provide a credentialing apparatus, that’s what college can be, but what I would recommend is that students not think of life like that, instead think of life as “I need to know more.” Virtually every subject in which you can take a course in the College of Arts & Sciences has a perspective and information to better understand the world. I think students don’t intuitively know that because they’ve been processed for the most part through a system that didn’t encourage a lot of learning as a valuable function in itself. To be intellectually curious is really a value that the College can provide. Our students need to think that way: that they can do anything, that they can learn anything. Really this is the process of a college education is to make you a learning machine. You can learn anything.
How do you think you’ll feel once you’re retired?
That’s an interesting question. Like I said, this is the first time since 1970 that I’m not going to be going to school in the fall. I’m going to be involved more in my grandchildren’s lives. We’re moving near D.C. I’m signed up for the Brookings newsletter, I’m going to be doing some reading, and I’m going to start blogging. I’ll blog about politics and things related to the world in general. The blog is called “Avoiding the Obvious.” I’ve put one thing up. It sort of summarizes what I’m about: it’s a picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.
To read the full interview with Dr. Price, visit the CAS blog.