INTERVIEWER: Today is June 29, 2010. I'm Karen Arenson. We are talking with Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin distinguished professor of political science at MIT, who is just finishing a five year term as head of the Department of Political Science. His focus is on American politics, political institutions, and elections. He was a member of the Caltech- MIT Voting Technology Project that was put together following this furor over the 2000 presidential election results in Florida.
He founded the MIT Washington Summer Internship Program in 1994 and has been its Faculty director ever since. He is noted for his teaching. He was elected a MacVicar Faculty Fellow in 1993 and received the Baker Award for Undergraduate Teaching and an award for innovation in education. Since 1992 he has also been housemaster at McCormick Hall, the only all women's dormitory at MIT, along with his wife Kathryn Hess, an environmental scientist. He has also served as associate dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and has participated in or lead several initiatives on the MIT curriculum. Charles, thank you for talking with us today.
You almost became a Methodist minister and spent a year at the Yale Divinity School. What drew you to that? Why did you ultimately choose to enter academe instead and focus on political science?
STEWART: Well, the interest in being a minister just came from my growing up in Orlando, Florida So we moved to Orlando in 1960, and not a whole lot going on in Orlando, especially in the 1960s. The churches are a really important part of my life, and the Methodist church in downtown Orlando was, at the time, the largest Methodist church east of the Mississippi. So although the place, overall, was very conservative, the church itself had a number of really interesting characters and a lot of really interesting ministers. I decided at a young age that I thought it would be kind of cool to run an operation like that, and to be among people like that.
So I went through my high school years thinking I would be a Methodist minister all along. I got interested in politics as the early as 1970s, and I discovered it was the perfect time in Liberal Protestantism to be interested in religion and politics. So these two things just sort of went along together.
In addition to being really active in the Methodist Church I was the president of the High School Young Democrats in Orange County and things like that, hated Richard Nixon with a passion, watched the Watergate Hearings, you know, soup to nuts, all those sorts of things. When I went to college, trying to get as far from Orlando as my parents would let me go, I went to Emory University-- which is a Methodist university, and I may be the only person that year who went there because it was a Methodist university --thinking that I would be a Methodist minister. They gave me a scholarship for pre-ministerial students to go there. So I went there and fell in love with political science, and continued some of the Methodist things and I was very active in the hierarchy and governance structure of the Methodist Church all throughout college. I remember waking up-- I had been already admitted into Yale and Harvard Divinity Schools, trying to figure out where to go --and I remember waking up on the February of my senior year thinking, oh my goodness, I don't want to do that. I want to be a political scientist.
It was too late to apply to grad school, and I thought, well, the Methodists have given me this money to go to school, something I've wanted to do for a long time. Let me go to seminary and spend a year at least to figure out whether this is really the thing I want to do or not.
So I ended up going to Yale, and on the one hand fell in love with the Yale Divinity School. I met a lot of friends that I've kept over the years. The best man in my wedding I met there. But I also was able to take classes in the political science department there at Yale. So on the one hand I loved Methodism, but then I realized the reason I loved the church was actually I liked the politics of it. I thought I was being strategic. I realized that that was the wrong reason for doing this, and other little things about myself like, I'm terrible about learning names, which I learned was because I'm not interested in people. I don't care what their names are. That's something I've worked with overtime, but little things like that made me realize that was not quite the path. The political science classes I was taking; I cared about that.
So after a year, it was difficult but I applied to some graduate schools and decided that this wasn't quite the way I wanted to go, the Methodist part. But the academic part was the thing. The academic part was for entirely the wrong reasons, which is to say that I thought it would be a cool, low-pressure lifestyle. I get to sit around reading books drinking coffee and writing things, which turned out to be entirely delusional thinking on my part.
So my first path was based on delusional thinking. That is, through thinking that being a Methodist minister was basically being a politician. Then going into academics thinking that it was a life of leisure and reading and not a whole lot of stress.
INTERVIEWER: But you didn't end up writing about or focusing on the politics of the church?
STEWART: No I didn't, although I thought about doing that. Methodism is actually interesting because it's a distinctly American denomination. Actually its structure is very American. Its federal in structure. It has a supreme court, it has legislatures at various levels, and I was elected to a couple of those over time. At the end of the day it's highly political in kind of the popular sense, but it's also political in the political sense. People have ideologies, they have interests, they're strategic in certain circumstances, they make appeals to wider audiences. So it could be done.
INTERVIEWER: Have political scientists done it?
STEWART: A litte bit. Every now and then, about every four or five years, I think there's some arbitrage to be done here.
INTERVIEWER: There's still time
STEWART: There's still time. No, I'm not dead, yet. I'm actually kind of easing back into that. So this is one of my phases where I'm thinking, well maybe I'll go do that. When I end up getting into it, I've ended up being drawn back to studying Congress and elections. Because it's my experience that people who study religion and politics are often times more interested in the religion part than in the politics part, which is the thing I end up being more interested in.
INTERVIEWER: You talked about in high school being part of the organization and being political. When you moved into political science it sounds like you moved into the sidelines. In other words, some people use that as a springboard into politics and running for office, but you didn't do that.
STEWART: I didn't do that. Sometimes I actually regret, for instance, I'm even registered as a Democrat, although that's where my sympathies lie. In part because I quickly learned that the comparative advantage of academics, especially of political scientists, is not our political beliefs or values. It's the understanding of the political process. Most people interested in politics just get in it and aren't very reflective. So there are millions of people doing that. What's one more person being unreflective and being emotional, and basically trying to pretend like their private values are somehow transcendent? That strikes me as not a good use of my time as a political scientist. There's only a few thousand of us as political scientists. There's only a few hundred of us in top research universities, and the amount of straight analysis, and I would even say facts about politics, is pretty rare-- and that's the rare commodity --and that's the part where I think I'm better than most. I'm happy to be on the sidelines. Because I think, you know, with millions of people doing the other stuff and they don't need another one.
INTERVIEWER: One other theme that it seems to come up in your writings and thinking and values is community.
INTERVIEWER: Why is that important to you? What about it?
STEWART: Yeah, a couple things. You could psychologize about it, maybe. I'm a Southerner and I keep trying to run away from being a Southerner, but I keep realizing that one of the things about the South, for all of its warts and all, is people care about who your daddy is. Just care about where you're from and who your people are, and just about you as a person. So that's part of it. But I think really, to me, when I went to Yale one of the things I discovered was what it's like if you're in a community of scholars or people who care about a single purpose, care about learning, care about each other, and learned how the two can really reinforce each other. So I'd have to say that my biggest learning from going to Yale, actually, was what it's like when you're living with people that you're also studying with and what happens to your life. So one of the reasons why I have this reputation for setting a record for the number of Faculty and another committees I've been on at MIT is that it just strikes me that the community aspect of education is of high value. It's actually of even higher value now that we have so many things pulling us away from each other, especially Internet sorts of things. So to have people come together seems to be an even more critical thing.
The final thing is I'm basically a shy person, and so I've also discovered that if I'm not led to community, that is if I'm not induced to go and sit at dinner with people or to just chat people up, I'm not going to do it. So the Yale situation taught me the value of setting up circumstances where you can't avoid it. So the Divinity School was basically away from the Yale campus, about a mile up Prospect Street up on the top the hill, and at dinner there was nowhere else to go. If you were hungry you had to go into the refectory and that was the only thing to do for two hours. So you might as well sit at a table and talk to folks.
So that's what I want to see more of at MIT. Because I think MIT is full of people like me. Basically shy people who want to get to work done, and if they aren't led to circumstances of being together to talk about things, well, maybe talk about work. That leads to other things. If you aren't led to those sorts of things you won't do it naturally. So I would say that if I had a mission at MIT, it's to try to encourage the things that bring people together so that they can have more serendipitous interactions with each other.
INTERVIEWER: Are there particular ones that you have found to be successful in that respect?
STEWART: Well, I think the dormitory. So being a housemaster. I remember the thing that drew me to be a housemaster- and again, I'm glad to do things for delusional reasons. I remember driving along Memorial Drive sometime in the late 80's and it was a Sunday morning. I looked to the right-- we were going by Baker House --and there was a lone person in there, I guess they had breakfast at the time, sitting at the table reading the newspaper. I thought, you know, what a great thing to be able to, in a college environment, to be able to do something like that.
Now it turns out MIT is not the sort of place that people sit around reading newspapers quietly on a Sunday morning. But it kind of planted the seed in my mind that MIT had these resources where people could get together. I've discovered by being a housemaster that the dormitories are enormously valuable for this sort of thing. In fairness I would imagine, as well, the independent living groups, sororities fraternities, which I have a number of students who are in. I don't have direct experience of that, but it strikes me overall that the fact that students basically live with each other for four years forges really deep friendships, a deep support network. All sorts of value that comes out of the education that wouldn't be there if most people weren't living on campus, or if we were moving around people all the time. Doing a number of other things that happen at other universities.
So that's the big one. There are other things. I mean, I think it's great that we have the Z Center. People just kind of get sweaty around each other, that's a good thing. I'm hoping that we're going to be, we are in fact going to be reopening the dining halls in the dormitories, at least once they have them, for full service in the next couple of years. Again, that's another thing where I think MIT has the resources, we have the physical layout. Why don't we bring people together?
Then finally, my activity on the Task Force on Student Life and Learning in the 1990s. That was committee work done at a time when universities were thinking that they would be virtual entities within 20 years. That work opened my eyes to the importance of getting people together. I would say that from that point on I've been looking for ways to make sure that MIT doesn't just try to put everything online.
So, you know, keep the libraries open. Avoid doing things that encourage distance learning, and avoid things that discourage students from going into the classrooms. Encourage things, whether they be really great lectures or great hands-on experiences or great dining experiences to get people together, either students alone or students and faculty together.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any sense of whether the community or the togetherness at McCormick Hall is similar to or different from other dorms? Do women gather differently? Or is there something about McCormick?
STEWART: I think they do and they don't. You know I went into McCormick expecting to hear like spontaneous choruses of I am woman, hear me roar type of things. Again, I was deluded, that didn't happen. So I've learned a lot about late adolescent women. It does strike me that the mode of living is more low key, more on the one hand, kind of even keel. So people getting to know each other. Not a lot of highs, not a lot of lows. Not always terrific organizers of large events, but great organizers of smaller events. So going out to a movie or going out shopping or just having a study break or people around just talking.
When I see what other dormitories are doing, which often times involve large parties and large organizational things-- I don't want to essentialize anybody, but it strikes me that there's probably something about women or women at MIT or women in society that make it more likely that the community building is kind of more face- to- face and more experiential.
INTERVIEWER: Who chooses to live in and all-girls dormitory in this day and age? Is it their choice or their parents?
STEWART: It really varies. You can kind of break it down and there are some who choose it only because it's close and it's clean. So it's sort of a second order affect that in 40 years of having women live in this place, you know, not too many holes have been punched in the walls. You know, all sorts of nice stuff about the building.
INTERVIEWER: Do they still call it McCormick Hilton? That's what they called it originally.
STEWART: I believe that.
INTERVIEWER: People on campus, not MIT.
STEWART: But freshmen still come in and I have to disabuse many of them the first time we meet with them because there's this rumor that McCormick used to be a hotel, that's why it's so nice. No. Haven't been to too many hotels lately, have you?
So there is that sense of just, the facilities are great. Some people just want this great facility close to the main campus, regardless of, and they've kind of put up with it maybe, with it being single- sex. So there's that.
There are undoubtedly some parents who push their daughters to live there. There are some young women who've read the research on women in science, and how it looks like women learning science among other women do better. So either they or their parents read this research and some want to live among women scientists. So there's that.
Increasingly I'm discovering that there are women either from South Asia or the Middle East, or whose parents were from there, who are choosing McCormick. So I would say-- I don't have an exact count --but nowadays, about 2/3 of our students are either from South Asia or ethnically South Asian or from the Middle East.
INTERVIEWER: Which is much higher than the general population.
STEWART: Much higher than the general population, and it's certainly much higher than 18 years ago when I became housemaster, where there was a little bit of that. In fact the first woman I ever encountered who was fully-scarved and-- was actually Aafia Siddiqui who is this terrorist now who was a McCormick resident, --I mean, I just encountered her. But even at the time there were a few very conservative South Asian women. But mostly I would say conservative kind of Midwestern women, the kind of trucking stereotypes, who chose McCormick at the time. So one consequence of this, you see, is-- I don't know how was it in your time, but --the big controversy at the beginning of every year is the vote on whether to make the bathrooms coed or single- sex. There's a black-balling vote, basically. One vote keeps it single- sex. When we started in 1992 I think we had one single- sex bathroom in this whole building. I don't think there any single- sex bathrooms anymore. Maybe one. So the expectations of the women, for whatever reason, has really changed in more conservative direction socially. I wouldn't say in terms of ambitions or excitement or any of the other things. So socially it's a little more conservative these days, just for a lot of reasons. But it still makes it a really interesting place. I wouldn't discount the place because of that.
INTERVIEWER: In the first six or seven years in McCormick's history women couldn't live anywhere else. There where very few of them and making bathrooms coed was the last question. I mean the boys were barely allowed upstairs. After dorms were made coed and MIT became much more open and boys were allowed upstairs many more hours, it became more of an issue.
STEWART: But one of the things that is going on in MIT that I don't think is quite reflected in the thinking of folks in student life, or even the Institute more broadly, is that it's my sense that there's an under supply of these sorts of living facilities at MIT. So now, as you suggest, women can choose wherever they want to live in any of the dormitories. Many of them don't want a full coed environment, but they still want a coed environment close to men. I think there's one or two floors or entries that are kind of single- sex floors or entries, but by and large, if you don't get into McCormick and you want that experience, you're out of luck. It's my observation that there's more women who want that experience now. Just kind of tired of putting up with guys, for whatever reason, and want to get on with their lives. I don't think MIT has quite come to grips with that.
Sometimes I say that women, by and large still at MIT, seem to be living here under the sufferance of men. In the other dormitories men like women living next to them. So there's a resistance in the coed dorms to carve out single- sex areas, although my guess is more women would want single- sex areas in those dormitories.
INTERVIEWER: What does the housemaster do and has it changed during your tenure? Are you typical in any way?
STEWART: Well, housemaster. What does a housemaster do? I sometimes flippantly refer to it as the morale officer of a ship. We're kind of just responsible for making-- we have formal responsibilities, and we can check off the list of formal responsibilities --but I think our big responsibility is to make sure that the undergraduates, in our case, are getting from MIT what they came here to get. That's in part to be rested and ready to go to class, and to have the other experiences that you associate with college. So whatever it is that needs to be done to make that happen, we help to do.
Practically speaking, what this means is we work a lot with the house government. In our view, if other people are doing their jobs, that's good. So we don't intervene a whole lot directly. So we meet a lot with the house government, give them advice, help to problem solve. Sometimes we'll take the heat. It's very hard for 18- to 20- year- olds to stand up to each other. So sometimes we'll just take the heat if it has to happen. So work with the house government. We work with the graduate tutors who live every other floor in McCormick They really know the residents better than we ever could. So we meet with them regularly.
INTERVIEWER: Do they report to you or to the dean's office?
STEWART: Yeah, they formally report to us and we make sure that they do. Because we want to make sure that there's nothing between us and students. There have been times, happily not recently, but really in our time as housemasters where there were attempts by the dean's office, at the time, to basically have the tutors report to them. We resisted that. I would resist it again. But they report to us. So we help to choose them and we meet with them very regularly. We take care of them. You know, we give them some money so they can do things on the floors.
So in our view if the house government is doing their thing, and if the tutors are getting to know their students and catching a lot of the normal stuff happens, then we can be there to intervene if there's really serious problems. Every year there's one or two students who have really serious problems that we have to get involved in. We can also do fun things, like have big pizza dinners and barbecues and things where we just get to know students. So another goal in this program is for students to get to know a faculty member well. In part, well. Paying couple hundred thousand dollars, you should just get to know one well.
But sometimes there's an advantage to knowing a tenured faculty, who can't be fired. So sometimes students will off knock on my door, knock on our door, and say I'm having this problem with my department or with the TA. What can I do? Can you call? Can you help out? So there's a bit of that.
INTERVIEWER: So you don't say, why don't you go see a counselor in the dean's office?
STEWART: Sometimes we'll do that. Sometimes we'll do that. It sort of depends on what the thing is. But I remember this last year, where there was a student who felt like that she wasn't being treated fairly by a tutor or TA who thought that she was plagiarizing, or not quite plagiarizing but not quite doing her work on her own. So I gave her some advice about, this is what I would do. This is the perspective of the TA and the teacher. This is what you need to think about. Which are things where-- I mean, we do have very good counseling deans --but I think sometimes you need the perspective of the faculty member who can think like a faculty member.
INTERVIEWER: How paternalistic is the university and it has that shifted in the 18 years you've been housemaster? To what extent, if any, do the housemasters help think about issues like that and where MIT ought to be.
STEWART: Yeah, we are pretty paternalistic and I do think the housemasters have a pretty good role in helping MIT think it through. I think it's a difficult issue for the Institute because there's no way of thinking about universities in general, which is the in loco parentis.
Even after in loco parentis went away, there's still the sense that we're like the old medieval fortresses or the old monasteries where what happens at MIT stays at MIT, and it's kind of a cozy place. There's kind of a deal between us and society: you take care of your business and we won't bother you. That understanding is breaking down. So on the one hand MIT wants to be very paternalistic, you know save students against their own worst impulses. On the other hand nowadays in society if you show up-- I don't know, pick a random example --at an airport with a circuit board on your shirt of a wire sticking out, you can't do that. So what does MIT do then, in that circumstance. Do we help sanction the students? Do we protect the students? What do we do?
Those are issues on the boundaries. Actually, way beyond the boundaries, in my view. But within MIT one of the things sometimes we say is, we'll let students skin their knees but we won't let them break their arms. So to that degree we're being paternalistic. So we understand people are on roofs. We understand people, maybe, are kind of pilfering things from labs to build cool things. Okay, there's a little bit that goes on, we understand that. But we do also have to watch out to make sure that students don't get close to those boundaries. Those boundaries are coming in nowadays even more so.
I have to say, happily, that at McCormick that's not an issue that comes up so much, quite frankly. I know that my colleagues in other dormitories have to worry about it a lot. Whether it be behavior in the university or whether it be the drinking or showing up at Logan Airport with circuit boards on their chests and stuff like that.
INTERVIEWER: Have the McCormick students changed much in your 18 years living there? You were talking a little.
STEWART: I mean ethnically they have and socially they have a bit. On the other hand they're still MIT students. The demographic of MIT students is changing. Students in general are changing nationwide. They're becoming, I think, more social. More communally oriented, more public service oriented, those sorts of things. You see that at MIT. INTERVIEWER: MIT is choosing differently to some extent?
STEWART: The world is changing. High school education, secondary education is changing. Everyone has to do community service projects now. Read the New York Times: there's always kind of, you know, what's the latest social trends? You know, people aren't dating so much anymore, they're going out in groups. Just kind of all these things. They show up at MIT. So to some degree MIT might be choosing differently, but my understanding of the best evidence is that the best minds in science and engineering are social, are literate, are articulate are those sorts of things, too. MIT, by choosing the best scientists and engineers, are getting a different type of type of student. That grates on some people, as you can imagine. It's not the old MIT. It's not kind of nerdy, pocket protector MIT. But that is changing, and so that's reflected in McCormick. Otherwise I think you know, college kids are pretty much college kids.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see in the way of McCormick, the women thinking about careers versus family? Is that something you and your wife get called on to discuss with them?
STEWART: A little bit. I think my wife more than me. In fact I know a one instance where she's actually gotten calls after someone's graduated. This is it's what's going on my life, what do you think? So we get a little bit of that. I would like to think that we're role models for the students. So a couple trying to work it out. She's an environmental scientist, and here's someone who can do it and that she's actually personally helped people on the career path, as well in her own area. We do try to encourage alumni to come and have dinner and to talk to students just about life in general. In fact, about Ten years ago we encouraged the house government to create position called the alumni chair, which we need to energize a little more right now, but the idea there is a few times every year to invite alums back. To sit around an informal dinner and just talk about how they navigated through MIT and then their careers.
There are also a lot of other opportunities I see going on. So SWE, for instance, Society of Women Engineers. There's a lot of McCormick residents who are active in those things as well. So I know career and family or issues, they probably are not heightened as much as they were maybe 20 years ago, for whatever reason.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any data or a sense of whether the women are as focused on, say, engineering as the men? Or on engineering and science as the men or whether they tend to major in different things?
STEWART: Well they do tend to major in different things and it is reflected in McCormick as well. A little less on the engineering side. A little more in biology and life sciences. A little more on management, as that's become more prominent at MIT.
INTERVIEWER: How about students in your political science department? What kind of trends have you seen there?
STEWART: Well, you know, I wouldn't say trends. So I came here in '85 and I think by then student activism had kind of run its course. So from there and to the present the students coming through political science have been more or less interested in whatever that four-year chunk of students is interested in. So for instance, right after 9-11 we got this big surge of majors who were interested in terrorism and international things. That kind of subsided a bit. I know we've gotten, the last few years, students really energized around Obama, and I don't know if that's going to continue or for how long. So I would say no trend. Just it's very episodic, it's very episodic. Usually the students we get, as well, are not always academically focused on political science. So they come into political science second, often times. So either as a second major, or double majoring, and that's just gotten easier. Or because, well you know, they discovered that well, maybe physics didn't work out. Then maybe math didn't work out and maybe economics didn't work out. Maybe political science will work out. So there's always a little bit of that. But that's been pretty constant, too, across time.
INTERVIEWER: Let's go back to the path that brought you to MIT and your growing up. Were your parents involved in either the religious aspects of your interest or in the political aspects?
STEWART: They really weren't interested in politics at all. I mean they read newspapers and would talk about things. They were pretty conservative and I ended up not being conservative. But they were very aware of the world. My grandparents, especially my mom's parents, who were from south Georgia and not particularly well educated-- but they read the newspaper everyday and they watched the news --and they were the ones who I stayed many summers with them. I remember my grandmother sitting me down in front of the TV at the summit that was held in New Jersey-- what was the university? I'm blanking on it now --when Khrushchev came and had a summit with Lyndon Johnson. There were TV reporters there following the limousine. My grandmother just plunked me down and said, you're watching history. So she did that and there were the little influences like that they got me at least aware of the larger world, and I think that was the important thing.
They were all church-going Methodists or Baptists, and so certainly the religious aspect of things was encouraged by them. But I think the politics side was more influenced because they read newspapers and wanted me to pay attention to the history as it was marching in front of me.
INTERVIEWER: What did your parents do?
STEWART: My father was an accountant. Did international accounting for Tupperware, which is in Orlando. My mom stayed at home while we were very young, and then she was a school teacher after that. So it was a very standard suburban upbringing.
INTERVIEWER: What did she teach?
STEWART: She taught elementary, lower elementary. So second to fourth grade. In fact I was once assigned-- she actually taught in the elementary school when I was in it --and I was very momentarily assigned to her class and then she got me out of there.
INTERVIEWER: You had siblings?
STEWART: Yeah I have a sister whose name is Joni, who is three years younger than I am. She went a very different path. I mean she wasn't so interested in academics and things. But she owns a tanning studio in Orlando. I never thought in Orlando there would be things like tanning studios, but there she is. A very different thing.
INTERVIEWER: Did you love school?
STEWART: I loved school. I totally loved school. I wasn't always top student, but I loved my teachers, I loved my friends. I would hang out with teachers after class. All the way up. School was just one of the best places to be.
INTERVIEWER: How did you choose where to go to college?
STEWART: Part of that was I was particularly aware of the United Methodist Colleges, of which there are 12 universities. I ended up applying to Duke and Emory, kind of the two Southern ones that-- yes, Duke is a Methodist school, too --kind of fell in love with Emory after a visit. Two other things. One is I did want to get as far away from Orlando as possible. My family was quite resistance to the idea that I would leave the South, so Emory was about as far as I could go. But there's also the case then if you're from Georgia, where all my family's from, every doctor in this little south Georgia town went to Emory to medical school. So the idea is that if you're really smart and you eat all your vegetables, you, too, will be allowed to go to Emory one day. So it was like, the place to go.
INTERVIEWER: But it sounds like you had a very transformative experience at Emory and it came out of your class work and professors? Or out of student friends? Or just welled-up?
STEWART: All of it. It was all of it. I took a political science class my very first quarter there, and I learned not only that I liked politics, I was good at it. So I just began to take a lot of political science classes. My friends were in political science, and hung out there with the professors and, you know, they recognized me as someone interested in political science rather than law. Most of the majors in political science go to law school. I was interested in the political science side. So they probably paid more attention to me for those reasons.
But then I also got involved in student government. So I was for two years the vice president of the Student Government Association and chaired the Student Legislature. So that got me running legislature and worrying about how that works. That got me interested in studying legislatures. It allowed me to observe how universities work a little bit. It got me in close proximity with the president and some other people.
Yeah it was transformative. You can sort of see the building blocks of the academic interest in political science, the interest in legislatures, and interest in figuring out how universities work were all there at Emory. Then you know, of course, then friendships kind of make it all happen.
INTERVIEWER: How similar is Emory to MIT? What are the biggest differences?
STEWART: Well I would say there's almost-- I can't quite say there's no similarities--
INTERVIEWER: They're both research universities.
STEWART: They're both research universities. But it is interesting that the Emory faculty in the early part of the 20th century were the faculty who took the lead in founding Georgia Tech. The history of higher education in America is such that in the early years respectable universities didn't have science and engineering. So Yale had the Sheffield School that it eventually incorporated and stuff like that. With Emory, the choice was well, let's help the state of Georgia do this because we don't want to dirty our hands in science and engineering. So in that sense it allowed itself to remain a liberal arts place, although it has very good science. Especially science related to medical school types of things, very good chemistry, very good biology. But then its real strength, I would say, was in the traditional liberal arts. So in that sense it's very different from MIT.
Roz Williams. I'm forgetting which relative it was. It was a relative who, I believe, the music library is named after, has a degree from MIT and Emory. Roz says something like hearing him say something to the effect of, well, I got trained at MIT, but I got educated at Emory. You know, I can see that a bit.
Most liberal arts colleges or universities, even research universities, they are dedicated to educating the whole person. They're dedicated to educating people who are unlikely to pursue their major in their later life. They're seeing the major really as a stepping stone to doing the next thing. So there's no worry about making sure you get all the English you need. Or all the political science you need. Because there's just an assumption that, we'll teach how to read, we'll teach you how to use the library, we'll teach you how to think and write and mix it up with people, and then you're on your own.
At MIT we try to do a lot of that. There's a lot of rhetoric, but sometimes there great anxieties among the faculty and students that you only get the four years at MIT. After that it's all down hill and you'll never learn a thing again. So we have to cram as much as we can before we let them out.
INTERVIEWER: But I wonder if both of them have moved toward each other. That MIT is more about educating the whole person now, and that Emory is maybe more about giving them some tools now than it used to be. Without knowing specifically.
STEWART: I think that Emory is, to the degree that I follow them, and I think that--
INTERVIEWER: That many universities.
STEWART: Many universities are, especially the ones that you know, trying to survive in the modern world where liberal arts education is being called into question. Absolutely. In fact, their curriculum is actually a much better curriculum. When I was there, all you had to do was take three social science, three humanities, three sciences. That was it in terms of requirements. Now their requirements are much more, not quite like MITs, but they are much more structured to make sure that you have a set of tools. You can't get out here without the set of tools.
So MIT, that's what we've started. You can't get out here without this set of tools. At least the rhetoric, and in many times the action, is around just making sure you're ready for the next thing. But I think the debate around the last round of curriculum reforms still showed that MIT, at the grassroots level, isn't always clear where it wants to lie down. Is MIT the last place where we really can give it to you all before you leave? Or do we have less of a heavy hand on what you do later in life? So I don't think MIT is quite comfortable, although we have gravitated more towards where liberal arts colleges are.
INTERVIEWER: When you talk about MIT it's a collection of the faculty who are making that decision and maybe the administration plays some role, but that you have some shift in faculty and divisions within it?
STEWART: Yeah. So observations. So the political scientists standing on the edge and looking in. There's clearly interests and there's clearly attitudes that show up in thinking about the curriculum. The interests are oftentimes fairly transparent. In fact in many ways not really even interesting. We want people taking our classes, we don't want to lose enrollment, those sorts of things.
Attitudes are really I think more interesting. I think at MIT there is a generational shift. There's always a generational shift, but I think it's particularly pointed now for two reasons. One is, it strikes me that there is what I've called the old MIT view, of kind of the narrow engineering view. Try not to be pejorative, but kind of, we're engineers and don't expect a whole lot more about us. We make things and we're really good at and don't make us do anything else. That view is rapidly retiring out of MIT.
There's another view that is more the faculty who came through in the 60s and the 70s, which is a bit more libertarian. I think reflective of the times during the 60s and the 70s. Which is, we have a lot of smart kids. We'll give them a bunch of tools, but other than just giving them the basic tools, we don't want to get in the way. I think there's a new generation coming along that says, well, yes MIT is valuable because you get a bunch of tools. You get a tool kit. But that we need to be a bit more intentional about helping students understand what social needs are, for instance. So maybe it might be more valuable for you to spend time at an internship that's not engineering. Or maybe a little more valuable for you to do a little more public service or say, service learning. Non-traditional ways of doing education and linking education to later life.
INTERVIEWER: But I'm surprised you used the word libertarian. I would have expected it to be liberal or communitarian, maybe. Or socialistic, even. Coming out of the team and community of Anti-War movement, the teamwork and systems.
STEWART: I'm surprised at that, too, but it's just my sense that there's a libertarian streak at MIT. At least on the curriculum side, that doesn't want to structure a whole lot, other than everyone has to take a year of physics and a year of calculus, the traditional science core. But after the science score, well students are smart and the can do whatever they want to. Outside the science core in their living environment and those sorts of things, they can do whatever they want to. If they don't want to live on campus, they don't have to do that. If they want to drink themselves silly, they can do that, well, that's probably not fair. But if they just want to make all sorts mistakes, fine.
I don't think that's the reality of the modern university. I think the reality of the modern university is the faculty needs to be a little more concerned about social responsibility and making sure our students are ready to take those social responsibilities.
INTERVIEWER: So coming back to your own experience as a political science grad student at Stanford, how similar was that to the experience of your grad students today? Did you know going in what you wanted to focus on in political science?
STEWART: In terms of the experience, it's been so long since I've been a graduate student. So I came here as an assistant professor right after I finished my PhD and so the grad students were my friends. So I had a sense about what it was like to be a graduate student here then. Now I'm kind of the old guy who kind of wanders in and so who knows what life is really like? However, the thing about graduate school, especially a PhD program, is that you learn the most from your colleagues, from your peers. That still is definitely the case. Now grad students still travel in packs and they still read things together and they still do those things that we did.
Stanford particularly, there is something about Northern California, I have to say, that's not the Northeast. So there are two things. There is a difference, at least in political science. Well, I know about political science. There's a difference between West Coast and East Coast research universities. The West Coast is very informal, it's kind of the California way. There's fewer boundaries between grad students and faculty members, and there's more of a willingness to share say, research and other things that are kind of half-baked. So there's a lot of informal brown bags at Stanford, just a lot of just sitting around sharing.
On the East Coast in general there's more of a tendency that we have to protect our reputation. We always have to exude the fact that we are the smartest person in the room. So there's less of a tendency to share half-baked ideas. That was something I really didn't notice when I came from Stanford to MIT. My graduate student seems a little more worried about looking like idiots than we were. Maybe we should have been worried about looking like idiots at Stanford, but we were less concerned about that than here. I don't know about my graduate students, but I still notice in the Harvard, MIT orbit that there's a little resistance to just letting it all hang out and showing what you have and letting your colleagues help you with your work.
INTERVIEWER: I wonder how much of that might just have been the time you were coming into grad school as a student pretty close to the whole Vietnam era when faculty and students were on the ramparts together?
STEWART: That could have been, but having spent time since then at Stanford and I just came back from being at Berkeley and you travel around universities, and there does seem to be a bit more of the informality. More of a flattened hierarchy. Even now. MIT, on the East Coast, I would say has the flattest of the hierarchies. So my experience is more of the meritocracy here.
That's why I've always thought of the two places to be in Cambridge, MIT is the place to be. Because the government department at Harvard is very good, and I have a number of good friends and colleagues there. I've taught some really great students from there but at MIT I don't have to put up with being at Harvard, and kind of having to look like I'm the Harvard professor. I think that's a great advantage to being here. Just do your work, be as smart as you can be, be around a bunch of people who are smarter than you, and just don't worry about it.
INTERVIEWER: When you started at Stanford did you know what you wanted your focus within political science to be? What did you end up doing your dissertation about?
STEWART: Well as an undergraduate I got very interested in, of all things, the budgetary process. Which in retrospect seems to be pretty boring. The reason is one, I had a very influential professor who studied budgeting. It turns out that the budgetary struggle, the struggle over the federal budget was one of the places where the struggle between Congress and Richard Nixon was the most intense. So there was a law passed in 1974 in the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, which suggested great promise for Congress taking over budgetary and policy-making priorities from the president. My Emory professor was interested in that and I got interested in that. I went to Stanford intent on studying that. But by the time I got to writing-- and many of the papers I wrote my first couple of years were about budgeting or around budgeting and trying to figure this out --when I got to writing a dissertation I realized that that act itself had not been in the world long enough to figure out whether it made a difference. Because I could tell some stories; but anyone can tell stories.
I had a professor on my Dissertation Committee, John Ferejohn, who said to me, well you know, it might be interesting if you got a running start. There's probably been budget reform before. Why don't you go back and see what you can do. So I just went back to the Civil War and sort of digging around with Congress and the president and discovered that there was budget reform back then. I just kind of, okay well this'll be the introduction to the dissertation about the `74 Budget Act. I wrote chapter one, went off to Brookings to begin writing this thing and wrote chapter one which started in 1865, just kind of telling a story, stopping in 1885. It was 120 pages. Ferejohn calls me up and says, Good God, man you have to stop. You know and maybe kind of reign in. So I ended up writing a dissertation that stopped in 1921. So it ended up being a historical focus. But also being political science, I brought in some modern theories that came from industrial organization in economics and statistical analysis that a historian wouldn't bring to it. So it really was a political science thesis but it had a historical focus. That was really important for me in later life, and my later career. Because much of what I've done and what I'm known for, actually, and the academic world, is congressional history where we take modern social science techniques and apply them to the past.
INTERVIEWER: When you received your offer to come to MIT how did that come about? How did you think about it? Did you have any reservations about being a social scientist among scientists and engineers?
STEWART: Maybe I should have more reservations. In political science-- every discipline has a variant on this --you know I sort of did the job market. I was finishing up and I think I applied to 20 places. I had been particularly recommended to MIT by the director of the governmental studies program at the time at Brookings, to Walter Dean Burnham, who was the Senior American at MIT at the time. So I was on the radar screen. But I applied to 20 places. My very first interview was at Emory. They offered me a job almost instantly. But they gave me a very short leash. But I thought well you know, if I don't go to a place like MIT or Harvard, well among the next tier of research universities, Emory would be a great place to be. So that instantly put to the side about 15 places. Then it was Harvard and Yale and MIT, kind of the top tier research universities. I interviewed at Harvard on the day before interviewed at MIT. So I think the comparison really helped. Had a great time at MIT. Loved it. The place was very collegial, had a great talk, I just really loved the colleagues.
Harvard made the decision easy for me by offering the job to the guy who had the office next to me at Brookings. Yale made it easy because I had to reschedule my interview there three times because that was the year of the strike. At the third rescheduling I thought, now I have this offer from MIT, I'm just going MIT. How much better could Yale be? Can't be much better.
So in part it was a process of elimination. I never really thought about MIT's relationship to the other scientists and engineers. MIT's reputation as a political science department was already very high. I mean I knew that it was unusual and I knew that among political science departments it had less of a presence in American politics than other places. But beyond that, I was looking for a place that had graduate students and faculty who seemed to be eager to have me, and had colleagues who seemed to be kind of good people who were glad to have me. When you're just starting out, having colleagues who appear to be eager to have you around is something you really cherish.
INTERVIEWER: You not only write about governance, but you've been active in faculty governance at MIT. Particularly on issues involving undergraduate education and curriculum. How did you become active and what are some of the issues you've worked on?
STEWART: Sure. I became active when Linn Hobbs, who at the time was the associate chair of the Faculty and was chairing the Committee on the Undergraduate Program-- this would have been about '93 --he called me up and he said, I think it's really important that there be a housemaster on the Committee on the Undergraduate Program. Would you serve as a guest member in my invitation over the next year? I said sure, sounds good. Now Linn is a professor of material science and I've since learned he's one of the people at MIT who also has this great concern about community. So he's a fellow traveler in that respect.
So he invited me to sit in on the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, which in the mid- 90s was one of the places where faculty and students and administration were struggling seriously with how to make MIT a more rounded place and a more modern university. At the end of that year Larry Bacow had been named the chair of the Faculty for the following year so Larry was in the process of naming his chairs of the Faculty Committees. So Larry asked me if I would chair the Committee on the Undergraduate Program. I said sure. I mean, not immediately. I talked around, but I eventually agreed to do it. So then I spent the next two years basically, while Larry was the chair of the Faculty, chairing the Committee on the Undergraduate Program.
As the CUP chair those couple of years there were number of issues, some of which we just basically kind of moved along. So we talked about things like freshmen advising and the UROP program. For both of those, they were times when those programs had been around for about 10, years had passed beyond their founding generation, or their founders, and were looking at all sorts of question. I helped the administration re-think about ways of reenergizing those programs.
The big thing that happened during those two years were the initial steps toward the new communication requirement. I was responsible for bringing the first motion to the Faculty that eventually led to the demise of the old writing requirement and the beginning of the currently communication requirement, which has turned out to be one the more successful curriculum reforms. Now I did not take the lead on that. That was well, Kip Hodges, who's no longer here, and Allen Lightman, who took the lead on that.
But I was the guy who greased the skids and got the votes in the CUP and got the thing to the Faculty floor. But that kind of got me connected in with the whole faculty governance process. That facilitated my being named to the Task Force on the-- Task Force on Student Life and Learning, which was co-chaired by Bob Silbey and Jon Hansmen. That was a task force that looked at the entire undergraduate educational experience, really, and got me to think more about the role of community in education. The importance of residential education in the modern online world. So those are kind of big, 30,000 foot issues, but the work of that committee-- a lot of people on that committee --paved the way things like Simmons Hall and the Z Center. I would like to also think we at least set the tone of the discussion in MIT at the time such that something like OpenCourseWare was possible, was more likely to happen, rather than other ways of dealing with online education, for instance. This was the late 90s.
Then when Scott Krueger died of the alcohol poisoning in the late 90s, that task force was also doing its work. We were instrumental in the decision to have all freshmen live on campus, for instance.
So during that time, other than chairing the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, I wasn't leading, but I was usually in the room. With other folks who were worrying about these things, which in retrospect I think were really important in allowing MIT to enter this last decade as being a truly national university, and able to attract students who might otherwise go to places like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, to ultimately branch out in kind of non-traditional areas like in energy and in cancer that you know a traditional, maybe engineering, university wouldn't have done.
But to kind of go back to the question, I think the other issues that I ended up getting involved with as a consequence were later on the freshman year. The MIT faculty had been worried for a long time about first year students under pass/no record. Basically coming to MIT first semester really eager to learn, and learning a bunch of stuff in the first semester, but then realizing in the second semester, I don't have grades. I can maybe take some classes and get them out of the way. Maybe I'll take thermo. I'm totally unprepared to take thermo, but I'll take thermo and I'll squeak by and it'll never show up on my transcript. By the late 90s there was actually a lot of bad gaming of first year pass/no record.
The faculty had tried to change it several years before and hadn't been successful. So Suzanne Flynn who at the time was chairing the CUP, she is a linguistics professor, she asked me if I would take on this hot button issue of freshman year pass/no record. So I chaired that committee, it was a great little committee. We actually changed it so that second semester students get grades, but they appear to be taking the classes now that are appropriate for them. Appear to be more prepared for the sophomore year. So now going from a freshman year to sophomore year is more of a ramp rather than having to jump over a wall.
I mean it's a little thing, it's big for the first year students, but it's the sort of thing where I wished the faculty would pay more attention, that is kind of fine tuning the curriculum, given the reality of the students right now. You know there was a very good reason for having pass/no record, when it was instituted, I guess in the 60s, but everyone had figure out how to game it, it wasn't serving the purpose, and let's look at this issue with new eyes. If we want to achieve that purpose, what's the new way of achieving the purpose? It's a very MIT way of proceeding.
INTERVIEWER: This comes to the issue of faculty control over curriculum. It's one of those prerogatives, I think nationwide, that it's treasured by faculty. Faculties think that it's their right to determine what students should study. Yet, if you look at what's involved in trying to think it through and make changes, it's heavy lifting and lots of faculty, not only at MIT but in other places, sort of say go away. I have my discipline to worry about, and my publications. Did you run up against that? Is there any way around? Do you always end up with a small group of people who really think hard and everyone else just kind of says okay, let me alone?
STEWART: Yeah. What you point to is the biggest organizational reality. It's not only that it's really hard to change the curriculum, therefore it doesn't happen all that often, but it also means that even when you know, because you know, that this is a serious effort, your colleagues don't take you seriously. Because yeah, okay, we've heard this before but it's always failed. Sometimes I say it's as if the faculty-- it's only when you're in their living room drinking their whiskey and eating their potato chips are they going to pay attention to you. So you could have fora, you can have meetings, you can all sorts of things along the way, but until you're actually in the Faculty meeting with motion on the floor no one's going to come, no one's going to pay attention, and no one's going to take the effort seriously. Which really makes it difficult because you can talk to even the most persnickety people to try to work out a deal, then you realize at the end of the day it's the wrong deal. So yeah, it's a really hard thing. The fact that it's a hard thing makes it even harder, if that makes any sense.
INTERVIEWER: So you got though the Faculty approval process, the change in the pass/fail for the second semester of freshman year. What are some of the other curriculum issues?
STEWART: The biggest effort that I was involved with was in shepherding through the last big Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons. That task force originally was chaired by Bob Silbey, who was then the dean for science, and then I was one the associate chairs of that. Then it produced a report that went to the faculty just as a report and caused all sorts of consternation among the faculty. The main reason being on the on the science course side, one of the proposals was one where not everyone, you could choose say, not to take 8.02, you could choose not to take that.
INTERVIEWER: Second semester of physics?
STEWART: Second semester of physics, particularly on electricity and magnetism. So it was as if you ended the world, totally ended the world. So there was a whole lot of concern about that and some other things. There was also concern about things we wanted to add into the curriculum. For instance, we thought it was very important to add in something that was a bit more engaging and hands-on, maybe project- oriented, into the first year. That, I think, was a bit at the end, end of the day, too informal of an idea. So it's a sort of idea that there are some other places that do this. Usually because somebody's giving them a bunch of money to this is. There wasn't a whole bunch of money associated with it here.
So there are other universities, other colleges do hands-on experiences in freshman year. But that wasn't good enough, we're MIT.
INTERVIEWER: Hands-on experience like the contests?
STEWART: Well, contests would be one thing, could be the Amy Smith development projects. Could be the Terrascope Project right now, which is a freshman program. Kip Hodges got it started maybe about 10 years ago where are you take on, usually an environmental or an earth sciences challenge. Maybe the Galapagos Islands or maybe water quality in America, or maybe shrinking polar ice caps.
INTERVIEWER: Sort of like a workshop?
STEWART: A workshop around a problem. Where students who are freshman, in this case, come in knowing what freshmen know, and they work as teams to try to understand the problem and to propose solutions. The solutions involve not only the technology, but also the social aspects of things and getting the money or the laws changed, and kind of just, think about this problem systemically. What can we learn about it and propose to the world? As a first year freshman.
INTERVIEWER: So one issue was where did you find time in the curriculum? If you were going to mandate that or require it?
STEWART: Yeah, that's the big one. If you mandate that then you have to take something out. That's where this idea of choice came about. Well, you could choose to do that. So you could choose to do that, you can choose to do E&M. But at the end of the day there was something we were doing right now that a student would likely choose not to do.
INTERVIEWER: Who was protective of that second term of physics? Was it mostly the physics faculty or was it the engineering faculty who said, are students need that?
STEWART: It was a bit of both. Not surprisingly, the physics faculty was skeptical about it. But also a large number of faculty in Course 6 were skeptical about it, too. In fact I would say the most vocal skeptics were in Course 6.
INTERVIEWER: They weren't willing to simply make it a department requirement or a major requirement?
STEWART: I'm not quite sure about that. So part of it then came to not only, well, our students need this but how can we graduate people from MIT if they don't know late 19th century electricity and math? If they don't know hundred year-old science? In fact, that was one of the ironies to me is that, okay, the core is almost nothing that was unknown to William Barton Rogers
INTERVIEWER: Then maybe other than the life science requirement.
STEWART: Right, which was the new thing, so modern biology. But the math and the physics is old. It's old stuff. So how do you get the new stuff? That really was kind of the question that wrestled with. How do you get the new stuff in? So how do you new physics in? How do you get computation in? Those were the things that we were struggling with, because one of the proposals in this menu of choices was a new computational subject.
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean by that?
STEWART: Well it would be a subject that would not necessarily be computer programming, although it would involve programming, but it would basically teach higher order concepts around computing. Like data structures and how do you organize information? So stuff at that level, rather than the skill level. So this becomes one of the debates, because a lot of the faculty want all our students to have computer programming. But except for Course 6, mostly, and some other places, most of the faculty when they think of computer programming are looking for something very practical. But at MIT actually, the core is not there for the practicality, it's for the mind. What does it teach you that's generalizable? That was the tension. Yes, we want everyone to know computer programming, but what you're talking about is not computer programming. It's data status structures and stuff.
INTERVIEWER: How did the committee even choose what to focus on? Did you have some kind of brain storming session? Or you fan out and interview faculty?
STEWART: We did a lot of things. We started off with basically a retreat, several days where we read everything that ever been written about the curriculum, and all the studies, and went through principles that had been enunciated by various task forces and we kind of yelled at each other for awhile. The sort of thing you do whenever you're getting a group of people together to understand a task. Then we spent two years of doing a wide variety of things. Meeting with groups of faculty, we went to every single department's faculty meetings to talk about the broad issues.
INTERVIEWER: Your whole committee?
STEWART: Parts of us did, and we reported back. We had a really great one hour shindig with junior faculty, which was tremendous. It made me realize that one day we'll do some really great modern things, if not today. We spent a lot of time talking to people, then arguing among ourselves about the best way to move forward. in fairness, the proposal that the task force moved to the Faculty was probably supported by 60 percent of the task force. I mean there was a split within the task force. It's reflected in the report of the task force of another proposal that was fewer menus, still some more modern things, maybe computation, maybe hands-on. But it was achieved in a different way. The details kind of escape me at the moment, but it was less menu- driven, more prescriptive.
At the end of the day we didn't get that. So we had two years of task force. We had a year of just listening to the faculty. Then after that it was decided to constitute a smaller group and there were maybe half a dozen of us. The idea being that if the group is small enough, then it can't delude itself into believing that it's representative. So it has to actually consult [INAUDIBLE]. So Bob Redwine and I chaired that group, and we had about six other colleagues, to try to figure out well, what could we get past the Faculty? We had a proposal that was similar to, but still also changed on the science core side. We had a proposal on the humanities, arts, and social sciences side.
The science core side had actually some experimentation. This is actually kind of extraordinary to me. The main thing was that rather than naming like, 18.01, 18.02, 8.01, 8.02, it named categories. So instead of 18.01 it was Classical Mechanics. Presumably of-- 8.01, Classical Mechanics --so presumably anyone could teach Classical Mechanics. So if chemical engineering wanted to offer an introduction and it got through the committee, they could offer the class, too. Well this was again, too much flexibility for some. Although we got a majority the faculty to agree to go that direction with a little more flexibility in the definition of the science core, at the end of the day we needed a super majority and so that failed.
INTERVIEWER: Which would have been '60 or '66?
STEWART: I believe it was 2/3.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think if people had realized you needed that, whether you might have been able to line it up? It just sounded like people weren't focused on needing a super majority.
STEWART: Well, there are two things. One was not being focused on needing a super majority. All of us, a lot of people including Art Smith, who was the grand old man of parliamentary procedure at MIT, he didn't think. None of us thought about that. The other thing is that while we were trying to hold on to and control the parliamentary situation and not let it get out of hand, it ended up being the case nonetheless that the proposal was on the floor of the faculty meeting for several meetings. So the last one, the people who would have voted for the proposal just thought, this is just going to be another talking session with a very small number of people.
So what happened was that it was packed with folks from a couple departments who didn't want the proposals and a few of the other people who wanted it to pass. So, yes. So if we had been savvy, [INTERPOSING VOICES] if we had called a question a previous meeting, it would have passed. If we had been more cognizant of the super majority would have passed. But in all of this one of the things we discovered is that very few people had any objections to the proposal in humanities, arts, and social sciences.
INTERVIEWER: Which was to do what?
STEWART: So that proposal basically got rid of this so-called HASS-D system. It's overly baroque. Had all sorts of kosher rules about sorts of classes that you could take and what was in those classes. Rules really written for the benefit of the faculty and the departments that teach the classes, and threw all of that away. With respect to distribution, the idea now is that you take a class in humanities, take a class in arts, take a class in social sciences and you're done. Everything else you take is up to you.
INTERVIEWER: But you have to do eight semesters?
STEWART: You've got to do eight semesters.
INTERVIEWER: Eight courses.
STEWART: You have to do a concentration still.
INTERVIEWER: Three courses in some related area.
STEWART: That's right. You have to do that. But otherwise it's pretty open, up to the students, and up to the departments to offer classes that are attractive to students. There was another thing in there. So one of the ideas on the humanities, arts, and social sciences side was well, could we create large blockbuster classes like the have at some other places like Harvard and Stanford. We didn't get that as a requirement. Well I used to call it the big idea classes, kind of a dopey name.
STEWART: Something like justice. That's sort of the classic thing. Could we offer those and have them required, and only for the first-years? We didn't get that passed but we did get it passed as an experiment. So over the next several years faculty are being encouraged to create them and teach them and then in a couple of years we'll revisit the issue about whether they're required. So we cycled back through and a couple months later got that past the Faculty.
INTERVIEWER: The HASS, the humanities side.
STEWART: The humanities side. So one of things I learned was that while the deans of science and engineering did voice support for the proposals early on, the deans of humanities, arts, and social sciences was actively involved on the HASS side. That is something [INTERPOSING VOICES] it was Deborah Fitzgerald. Actually, a little bit of it inside baseball.
So when I was associate dean of humanities, arts, and social sciences, that was when I was associate vice chair of the Silbey Task Force. The idea was basically, the half side was my responsibility. Well, when I became department head of political science, Deborah was eventually appointed associate dean in my place and Deborah was then added to the task force. Then Deborah, one summer, got a bunch of faculty together to kind of hammer out a proposal. So Deborah was deeply invested in the proposals and in the process in a way that the other deans ended up not being. It's no fault of their own. Just in retrospect you realize that she had helped to craft a lot of this. She knew where the bodies were buried, she understood the issues from the get-go, and she had a lot of her time invested in it.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think it was because she felt there was more of a stake in the outcome and she wanted to see something changed in a way that maybe the School of Science and Engineering perhaps didn't?
STEWART: I don't know. I think that the other two deans as well, had ideas very strong ideas about education in their areas and understood how the core curriculum goes. That can have huge ramifications for their schools. They certainly understood that. They were certainly supportive of innovation in their areas and have been. I just think that there's something, even in this case, I think accidently, fortuitously, you get drawn into the process early on. Then it becomes one that you're associated with and I think that the faculty in my School, at least, associated those proposals with her in ways that the other parts weren't associated with those deans. That really helped. Another thing I learned about university.
So this goes back to your original question and premise about isn't this hard to do? It is hard to do, and one of the ways it happens, I observe in this case, in the proposal that's deeply associated with the dean. Well you're not too worried about resources flowing, about all the little things being done to make it happen because you've seen the dean craft it. So that's taught me something about how you get things done in universities.
INTERVIEWER: Is there a going to be another try on the science, engineering side? Or is that just off the table for the moment?
STEWART: My guess is it's off the table, but I've moved on. I'll let other people worry about that. I will come and vote for it, but I'll let other people do the heavy lifting.
INTERVIEWER: Let's go back to you and your department. You became head of the department at some point. What state was it in? What were the challenges facing it? The problems? The issues? How did it compared to the department when you had come in as an assistant professor years ago?
STEWART: So I came in, I became department head five and a half years ago. Tomorrow's my last day. So this would have been I guess 2005, January 1, I think. So the big issue really, which I think we've now come out of, is the generational replacement. That kind of Mayflower generation. Well, the Mayflower generation, want to call it that. The Ithio pools and those folks had departed the scene about the time I arrived. Or were departing.
INTERVIEWER: In the mid- 80s.
STEWART: In the mid- 80s. So Ithiel had died a year or two before I arrived, for instance. So you had some of the people that they had hired, like Myron Weiner, who are still on the faculty. But then Myron died about 10 years ago now. Many of those people then eventually left or retired.
INTERVIEWER: So these were the big names who had put MIT political science on the map, even though it was a small department.
STEWART: Absolutely, and had particularly-- although it was actually a much more diverse department than some people give it credit for. It was known for an emphasis on political development.
INTERVIEWER: Who, Walter Rostow was here? Or was he in economics?
STEWART: No, actually he was in the department when it was the Department of Economics and Political Science. So we can claim him early on. But by the time things split, I think he had moved on. It really was mostly the international component with a little bit of policy within American politics.
So those people were pretty much departing the scene. People they had hired were still here. So people like Suzanne Burger. But really the question was one of transition and where the department was going. Because the international component of things had remained but the development component hadn't remained such a strength. A strength in security studies had grown overtime. I would say as I was coming in the door, and still is to this day, the strongest part of the department in terms of bringing in the money, bringing in the graduate students. Having a profile in the larger world.
The other areas I think were in need of rebuilding. Or were rebuilding. So American politics, we hired a bunch of folks that were coming along, so that was one thing. The other thing, though, that I faced that Josh Cohen, my predecessor, had begun to face a little bit, was a series raids on the department. It turns out that our salaries weren't all that good. So we had the good fortune of hiring some tremendously talented people over the preceding decade. Young people who were very good political scientists and very attractive to the outside world, and they were being poached. I think in my time-- I counted up the other day I've lost track --but I think in my five and a half years as department head I had to fend off 15 outside offers to my colleagues. About half of those are people who ended up leaving and half of those are people who ended up staying. Josh had to fend off several, as well.
That ended up in my time, most of my five and a half years, ended up being what I worried about. You know, very wealthy institutions down the road or around the world were trying to hire our folks.
INTERVIEWER: How much was it a question of money and how much was it a question of going to places that had bigger departments or liberal arts universities?
STEWART: Well, it was a bit of both. I mean I think that the attraction of other places is having-- we're kind of a happy band of political scientists. It's nice having not a whole lot of undergraduates, having undergraduates who really want to be there, and then having really great graduate students and having kind of a core --but it's kind of nice being at a place where maybe there's two or three people who do what you do. So that you can go on leave and not be guilty about it. Or you don't always have to teach the same thing. Or there are just more people to talk to. That's what we do, is we talk to people. We learn from each other. So going to a department with twice as many faculty, with twice as many graduate students.
INTERVIEWER: How big is the department here?
STEWART: We have about 25 faculty in a good day, on a good day. We admit about 12 PhD students a year, so we usually about 45, 50 knocking around at any given time. Then we graduate about 10 to 12 majors a year. In contrast to the government department up the street. Which I say is, they're Course 6. It's the second or third largest major at Harvard, you know so they'll be graduating 400 or 500 people a year. Or maybe 200 or 300 people a year. They have 55 to 60 faculty members. They have 20 new PhD students, just go down the list.
INTERVIEWER: This is their government department?
STEWART: Their government department, and they have more money than god. So then they have centers. They have centers for international studies, they have Center for American Politics, so they have all sorts of opportunities to bring in people from the outside to create this great hubbub of activity.
We're happy. We bring in people, it's great place to be. But you know, the grass might be greener. Then there is money. At the time we were below scale. Happily, five and a half years later we're at scale, and we're where we need to be. But we had gotten to a place where we should not have been. I spent most of my time worrying about losing colleagues.
INTERVIEWER: To what extent is there collaboration? In the economics area it's interesting that they have an over-arching institution which has of course branched out way beyond Cambridge-- the National Bureau of Economic Research --but it somehow makes MIT a little more equal to Harvard despite it's much smaller size. Is there anything like that in PolySci or could there be?
STEWART: Well there is. I mean yes and no. The Center for International Studies for instance, which was the core of the founding of the department continues to be really strong and excellent and continues to grow. It has educational components, it has research components, brings in visitors, it's where the security studies program is actually lodged, and so it's something kind of like that. But it's one thing. So for the rest of us, often times it's we're taking advantage of Harvard. Even I've taken advantage of NBER. So you know, the resources of Cambridge are really great. So if we're not fighting Harvard we can take advantage of the fact the resources of Cambridge are great.
INTERVIEWER: The size of the department is about the same as when you came in, or is it much smaller?
STEWART: It's about the size, and it's always been about that size. At the time we were a small department. But there were other small departments in political science. Chicago and Stanford being two in particular. Over those 25 years the Chicago department is about the same size. Stanford has doubled in size. So now we really are an outlier in terms of size.
INTERVIEWER: The administration, it sounds like, must've been fairly supportive in trying to rebuild and hold people.
STEWART: Yeah, they have been really supportive. Really the agony is just kind of doing the work. Trying to figure out ways, because everybody's case is different. A big thing in moves is not only the academic opportunities, but the lifestyle and the families. So part of the effort and the emotional draining is getting to know somebody really well and thinking about them and their family situation. The provost and the dean can provide money and can provide suasion, but the work has to be done by the department head.
INTERVIEWER: You've been noted for your teaching several times. You've won these awards and students say that your enthusiasm was contagious and that you dazzled them and one student described your lectures as concise and thoughtful, incredibly insightful and detailed across an expansive sweep of American political history. Can you tell us about your teaching style and whether it's changed much over the years?
STEWART: Yeah, I wonder what day dazzling happened? Must have been a special day. Well, you know my teaching style has been very much adapted to MIT. Because at the end of the day I would say, characterize it as being informal. I lecture from notes, but I rarely stand at a podium. If it's a lecture class-- which might have you know, the Intro to American Government class when I was teaching it, before I became department head, might have like 75 students --so I would wander around the room. Go back to the notes from time to time. But I'm happy to be distracted. I'm happy to engage in conversation and to be very interactive. So with lecture classes it just helps that even a large, large lecture class is relatively small. I can get to know most students and I can kind of speak as if I'm speaking informally. For the more advanced classes, and I teach a class on Congress and I teach the department's data analysis course, the Political Science Laboratory, those are classes with roughly a dozen students in them. I can sit around a table-- and I'll have prepared notes, might even have some PowerPoint slides --but I can sit around the table and I know them. I can just deal with them informally, and I think that's the thing that's gotten me the recognition at MIT. I think if I were at another university where I wouldn't have had these opportunities, I don't think I would have been as good a teacher. But the fact I can just get to know students and can operate on an interpersonal relationship really helps.
INTERVIEWER: Although you've won a number of awards also and been recognized for the quality of your papers that you've written within your discipline and so forth. What's the magic there? Is it content or style or a combination? Do you have any sense of what your papers winners?
STEWART: Yeah, on the papers I would say part it's content. Well actually, the first paper I won an award for was just totally out of left field. Which most people would wonder why would this be award-winning? It was about the admission of states after the civil war. The politics of that. It was just something that I'd stumbled upon in another paper, and did this with a colleague. But it turns out that the order in which states where admitted and some states not admitted built a Republican majority in the federal government, which then allowed for a whole rash of legislation. Allowed for the appointment of what became known as the Lochner Court. A lot of things we associate with American political history were basically only possible because this Republican majority had been manufactured through the admission of states. It's kind of like oh, this is kind of neat. The application of modern statistical techniques helped. I would say the award-winning papers are ones that take something that people, when you point it out to them, will think, oh yeah, that's kind of an interesting thing. Then the perspective I bring is of a modern social scientist to questions that often times have a historical root.
So another award-winning paper was something, a paper about Henry Clay, who was supposedly the father of the House of Representatives as we know it today. Actually the paper was totally a debunking of this whole thing. But again it's like, everyone [INAUDIBLE] about Henry Clay, yeah. You know War Hawks and all that sort of stuff. Well, let's stop and look at this. That's the sort of thing I do. What do you think the evidence is? Let deconstruct this. Let's use the modern techniques, roll call analysis and various things to demonstrate, or to illustrate, whether or not this commissional is true. If it's not true then, well maybe you need to rethink what we think about American political history and development.
INTERVIEWER: So when MIT students see that they can combine their strength in analyzing and their quantitative skills with this field, do they get very excited?
STEWART: They do, and that's the neat thing. That's one of the reasons why I really like teaching the Political Science Laboratory class. How I try to organize it is, start with just questions you read in newspapers that kind of make fact claims, or make causal claims, and then just ask well, you how would you know if this is true? Often times you can actually know if this is true. Or even more often you discover, you can't know some of this is true. Because this is impossible to measure, or the causal inferences are impossible to make. So they just jump at, often times, the opportunity to gather the data, to crunch numbers, et cetera. Now I have to say, often times they will they would jump to the number crunching before the thinking. So that's the thing that my job is, to make them think before they crunch. But certainly I don't have to motivate them to go off and find some data. Okay, go on.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us about the Washington Internship Program and how and why it got set up, and how it's gone over there.
STEWART: Well, so quickly I'll go back to Emory. Where when I was there, probably one of the most formative experiences as an undergraduate was being an intern as part of my major. Jimmy Carter, when he was governor of Georgia, had created this really great internship program, which you actually got paid to work for an agency. I worked for the State Ethics Commission as their legislative aid during the legislative session. So you know, hung out at the state capital for three months, to know a whole bunch of folks. Went drinking with a bunch of state senators. You sort of got to know it, make politics real. Really, really great.
So I knew I would want to start something like that wherever I went if it didn't exist already. It didn't exist at MIT. The problem is there aren't that many majors. So MIT is not that sort of place. But I begin talking around to colleagues and to Dean Khoury and to Dick Samuels, who was the department head at the time in the early 90s, and began to realize that there might be a place for engineers. Why don't we focus on engineers and scientists?
This is also the time when Chuck Vest was just becoming president. MIT was having a problem with the political and outside world. The outside world was having a problem with MIT. So on the one hand, I wanted to get an internship program going at MIT. In the air at the time was a worry about how do we deal with the world? In my mind, this became MIT's way of connecting MIT to Washington. On both sides. So take a dozen MIT undergraduates who are by and large science and engineering majors and send them to Washington. Can't work in a lab and learn about this world that is going to regulate you, going to fund you, is going to do things to you as you become a scientist and engineer.
It's also for folks in Washington to learn that MIT undergraduates actually have something to offer. Because one of the things I discovered was a lot of people who do the regulating, or even giving advice about science and technology, or history majors or English majors. Just think that people like MIT undergraduates, well, they can't write, they don't know anything. So this is an opportunity to prove them wrong. There are a few places in Washington now, and Brookings is one, where they take MIT undergraduates now. That they wouldn't have before.
INTERVIEWER: Are there committees that want technical input? I don't know, the FCC, for example?
STEWART: FCC has taken folks [INTERPOSING VOICES]. It turns out that usually all they need is what you can get by your first year at MIT. The FCC people, and we've had some folks actually working and their technical branch where good that you're like a junior in Course 6. But usually the fact that you've taken a year of calculus and physics, puts you head and shoulders over anybody else when it comes to the sorts of technological issues.
INTERVIEWER: Or that you think so analytically, whether you need the calculus or physics.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any problems filling out those slots? Is it still about a dozen a year?
STEWART: Still about a dozen a year only because it's limited by fund raising, because we do pay students. You know, our undergraduates can get paying jobs in the summer. I quip that you can't swing a dead cat in Washington without hitting a volunteer intern over the summer. So it's really a volunteer culture. So we've got to pay them to get there, and I don't have any problems. We don't actually advertise very much because we only take 12. We have about 60 to 80 applicants a year. Yeah we could do it much larger, if we had more money.
Then on the Washington side the opportunity to have an MIT undergraduate work for you for free, great opportunity. Over the years we've developed connections with a number of places. So we get a bunch folks into the World Bank which is a coveted position. World Bank does not take undergraduates as in interns except undergraduate from MIT in my program. So that tells you something about the value added of our students.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have economics students coming through you as well as the science and engineering?
STEWART: Yes, actually we do have a political scientist every now and then. We don't say, you know, political scientists need not apply. About 10 years ago, though, when Johnny Gruber, when John Gruber, I call him Johnny, was in Washington as assistant secretary of the treasury. He came back to MIT saying we've got to get economics students into Washington So he arrange the economics department to sponsor a couple of economics students. So we have 12 science, what I call the science and engineering core, we always for sure have a couple of economists. Sometimes as many as four.
INTERVIEWER: Do they take your seminar before and after that experience?
STEWART: Yeah, and part of it, and this was John's idea as well, I mean there's doing the economics work, but there's also recognizing that even if you're working for the Council of Economic Advisers, the most important part about that work is not the number crunching you're doing, it's the fact that there's the entire world looking at you. What are they expecting? What sort of arrows are going to throw your way? How is your work going to be used in this larger environment? Really that's what that seminars about, to alert them and sensitize the students to the fact that there is nothing neutral in Washington ever happens.
INTERVIEWER: Are you in down there at all during the summer with them? Or is it more the spring and the fall?
STEWART: It's really in the fall. I will visit down there a couple of times. Toby Winer, who's been staffing it all this time, will go down and visit as well. We always have alum of the program nowadays who's down with them all summer to help facilitate things. But mostly they're on their own. They work very hard. They actually also work to put together their own seminar series during the summer. So one of them gets delegated to call up the head of the National Science Foundation. Can we come by and talk to you? Head of the National Science Foundation is always happy to talk to my students.
INTERVIEWER: One may be the former engineering dean of MIT.
STEWART: Exactly, exactly. They spent four hours, three hours with John Roberts on his first day on the job because he had nothing else to do, it turns out. Not my choice of supreme court justice, but hey, you know they just call up and get this access.
INTERVIEWER: How is if funded? Do you have any endowment? Or do you raise the money year by year?
STEWART: We have a little endowment. Dana Mead, who's stepping down as head of the Corporation and is an alum of our department has given a generous donation to help endow about half of the positions. We've had some other people do it as well. We get some money from the provost, in good years. You know, these days, you know. But the provost has helped, Dana has helped, other people have helped. Dana has been especially helpful because he actually invites his interns over every year and sees this also as mentoring and as leadership.
INTERVIEWER: He invites them in Cambridge?
STEWART: Yeah, in Cambridge. In Cambridge. This becomes kind of a little added feature, is that you get a mentor in Dana Mead, which not too shabby.
INTERVIEWER: You were, going back to the teaching, and the fact that you're noted for your teaching. Do you think good teaching can be taught? As department chair and associate dean were there anything that you could or did do in those positions?
STEWART: I'm sure I can. I know it can because very smart people have demonstrated to me that it can be taught. But I do think the most important elements of it come from the person wanting to make it happen. Because it seems to me that once you get beyond the mechanics, and certainly the mechanics can be taught, and I've seen in my own work, and especially in other people, advice about mechanics makes a world of difference. So that could certainly be taught.
But I'm also convinced that once you get beyond the mechanics the most important things in teaching is-- to me this is the economist in me thinking --it's a signal to the students that this is worth their while. They're very busy and they're trying to figure out whether they should spend their mental energy and their time learning this material. Reading this stuff right, newspapers, and taking it seriously. When they see a faculty member engaged, excited, going out of the way to bring in new materials, it's the signal to them that this is important. I think that's where the good teaching comes from. That comes from within the person.
Luckily my colleagues, and most almost everybody at MIT, has it in them to show the enthusiasm for what they do. Right. That's a neat thing about the place is that you can show the enthusiasm for what you do.
INTERVIEWER: Research. I think we're probably running down in time, but do you want to tell us about the Caltech- MIT Voting Technology Project and since the problems in Florida, have voting technologies improved, or is there still a big gap? What projects are you working on now?
STEWART: To try to condense this a bit, I would say first of all that the Voting Technology Project is what MIT is about. I think it's a great example of how MIT engages with the world. That's thing number one. Thing number two, one of the great things about the project was its interdisciplinary character. The two campuses, engineers, social scientists together working on a project. Designers working together on a project. It's a little less interdisciplinary now because some people have kind of fallen away, other things to do. But still there's a core of folks who are still interdisciplinary.
You know the problems in Florida looked on the surface to be ones of failed technology. Hanging chad and butterfly ballots and those sort of things. Our initial charge was to design a voting machine that was bullet-proof. After about two months working on this problem, we realized that was a silly goal and at the biggest problems facing elections in America were not the voting machines. They were the whole system of voting. Registering people, getting them checked in, using the machines, designing the ballots, then counting the ballots, that hold chain of voting was a problem. We've basically spent the last decade trying to understand that change.
So the technology part is still there, and we still have some of the core findings about the role of technology and it's been used in legislation. So our core findings were basically written into the Help America Vote Act, which ended up providing statutory guidance and several billion dollars to build better voting machines. So technology is really important.
INTERVIEWER: Which was passed when? Before the 08 election?
STEWART: Yeah, it was passed in 2002. New York was supposed to have their new machines in 2004. But your home state have been the heel draggers in all this. We were on the Hill talking to folks. All of us were talking to senators, and Al Franken and all sorts of folks. Really kind of heady days in the early part of the decade about the reform.
Nowadays, for a lot of reasons, technology is not where the businesses are right now. But still there are questions about registration, about voter identification, a lot of things about the process of voting. So most of what we're working on right now is part about the process of voting. One of the most interesting things we're doing right now, for instance, is working with the county of Los Angeles. Los Angeles County is an election jurisdiction that is larger than all but eight states. So it's the largest county, probably in the world, if they have counties. They have a voting system that is absolutely antiquated and about to just dissolve before our eyes. Basically the department there has gotten the Voting Technology Project to help them with the process, to understand how to build an entire voting system for the county of L.A. So we've done this research to try to figure out the best types of machines, the best way to do registration, the best way to trained pull workers and those sorts of things. Right now, as sort of the culmination of all and working with the largest electoral jurisdiction in the country to help them, if they're going to design the system from the ground up, how to do that.
So voting is much better than it was in the 2004, 2008 election there were probably a million votes that would have been gone uncounted that were counted because of the Voting Technology Project and other efforts to make voting better.
INTERVIEWER: Do you get involved with the other side of the issue? The whole question of Americans who have the right to vote and don't bother?
STEWART: A little bit. I have become interested, more broadly, in people voting. Although, I have to say I'm more interested in issues of race in voting. The Voting Rights Act, et cetera. The bottom line there, in general with people not voting is that-- and America is not as bad as you think. By the time you're 35, you're voting at the same level as Europeans --so the problem of non- voting really, is a problem of young people. So if we can find ways of getting young people to vote we'll be as good as anywhere in the world.
INTERVIEWER: That comes back to education.
STEWART: There you go. Get everybody at MIT a voting registration card, we'll be all set.
INTERVIEWER: Well, thank you very much for talking with us today.
STEWART: Thank you. I had fun.
INTERVIEWER: Very interesting, and good luck with your new projects after your department chairmanship.
STEWART: Looking forward to it, thanks.
INTERVIEWER: Take care.