The History of Political Science at Vassar College

by Thomas Facchine '10, Rachel Hui '09, Darren Kwong '09, Janeen Madan '09, Maria José Mendez '09, Kelly Tan '09, Sophia Williams '09, Tiina Vaisanen '09, and Jenni Wong '09.
January 2011
Department Website


The entry on the Political Science Department from The Administrative History of Vassar College 1861-2003 reads as follows:

The college offered the course Political Economy in the Department of History and Political Economy in 1865. A year later, Science of Government and American Constitutions were added to the curriculum. Throughout the following years, various courses on politics were also being offered in the Economics and Philosophy Department. By February 1913, President Taylor appointed the first professorship of political science, which was held by Emerson D. Fite. With a $75,000 endowment, the college officially established the Political Science Department by October that same year. In 1915, a $300 gift from Vassar alumnae was made to fund a series of lectures on the Principal of Law. Based on the success of these lectures, an endowment was made to further the maintenance of the department and the lectures. By 1950, the department placed emphasis on student participation in various field work experiences. In the mid 1950s, Vassar started offering a six-week summer internship program in Washington, D.C. Ten years later, Wellesley College jointed the program with Vassar. By 1965, the political science major concentrated in three areas: theory and law, international relations and foreign government, and public policy. In 2002-2003, the Department of Political Science offered a four-year undergraduate degree with courses in four of the major fields of political science: American, comparative, international and political theory. (An Administrative History of Vassar College 1861-2003, ed., Elizabeth A. Daniels and Ronald D. Patkus, Poughkeepise, NY, 2004, 51-52.)

Upon the suggestion of the Sesquicentennial organizers that the “Histories” project would be a great way to involve students in the celebration, the Chair of the Political Science Department, Andrew Davison, invited interested members of the Department’s Majors Committee to undertake a full semester Independent Study that would culminate in the department's contribution. Thomas Facchine '10, Rachel Hui '09, Darren Kwong '09, Janeen Madan '09, Maria José Mendez '09, Kelly Tan '09, Sophia Williams '09, Tiina Vaisanen '09, and Jenni Wong '09 engaged in a full semester of collaborative research, deliberation, and writing to produce the following account.

The Beginning of the Political Science Department Exploring Different Pedagogies

The creation of “The Far East” in the course catalogue in Fall 1912 is like the creation of the Political Science Department in 1913. In the attempts to pin down categories in the fields of study, the “multi” is lost and the self is the only portrait painted. Almost a century ago, professors and students attempted to understand the “Far East” as “the Orient,” a single-dimension category of persons that is uniquely different from the self. In the same way, with a $75,000 gift from F.F. Thompson, the formation of the Political Science Department in 1913 undermines the multiple possibilities of understanding in order to create a monolithic process to view what is “political.” Yet, ever since the department existed, professors and students continue to realize and explore how multidisciplinary and order-less Political Science can actually be. Professor Fubing Su's classes on China approximately ninety years later are a continuation of the unveiling of the self and the "Far East."

With the exploration of multidisciplinary approaches comes the constant introduction of different pedagogies. As revealed in the department’s historic documents, examinations have served as an important pedagogical approach to evaluate students’ progress. For example, a mid-year international law exam from 1914 reflects an emphasis on specific legal technicalities. Students were asked to give legal advice for specific scenarios. In addition, students were also asked to complete survey/research type assignments entitled, “Required General Information,” (1936) which outlined over 60 questions including: “What is the pan-American movement?” and “Explain why there are no more ‘lame ducks’ in Congress.” Therefore, how, if at all, has the department’s emphasis on exams changed? How do different teaching styles reflect a shift away from exams toward a greater emphasis on class discussions and critical/theoretical reasoning through (research) papers?

In 1950, the Political Science Department also introduced Applied work/Field work to enable the practical application of classroom learning in the field of government (national and international), social service and teaching. In several instances, course work was supplemented with fieldtrips to New York City and Washington DC courts, as well as the United Nations. Students were also encouraged to work with local political groups and various federal agencies in the surrounding community. The emphasis of supplementing classroom knowledge through fieldwork is very much evident today. Notably, in 2009, Professor Sarita McCoy Gregory received a grant to fund the Dutchess County Citizen Action Network (DCCAN), a student poll worker training program.

The Politics of “Political Science”: Democratic Decision Making and Divisions in the Department

What is Political Science? If you take this question to members of faculty, you’re sure to get widely varying responses. Indeed, if you take this question to students of the department, you’ll get equally varied answers; what with the increased specialization and independence of departmental subfields, many graduating Political Science Majors will never have taken classes with each other.

It didn’t used to be this way, Professor Richard Born remembers. He recalls a time when there used to be much more consensus as to what Political Science was and how to approach teaching it. In the 70’s, he explains, there was broad agreement, even between senior and junior faculty, that an introductory survey course and proficiency in statistical analysis were fundamental to a sound Political Science education. That consensus has been shattered. Interviews with current faculty have illustrated how previously uncontested concepts are now subject to more questioning and analysis. While this is a nation-wide trend, Professor Born maintains that the broadening scope of Political Science as a discipline has occurred more extensively than usual at Vassar. Many faculty and students, finding it a remarkably enriching aspect of the department, welcome this expansion.

The increasing contestation of what Political Science should or could look like probably emerges from both increasingly diverse faculty and a move away from seniority-weighted to democratic decision-making. Much of the work to transform the department governance was initiated by four professors, informally known as the "Gang of Four", starting in 1969. Professors Wilfrid Rumble, Glen Johnson, Fred Bunnell, and Dick Willey comprised this "gang." According to current professors, this democratization has revitalized teaching and learning practices in very fruitful ways. Professor Andrew Davison, current chair of the department, explains that when faculty members propose future courses, the climate is not one of approval or disapproval but rather one of immense support and constructive feedback. This mutual trust and collaboration has brought to students many multi-methodological and intellectually diverse courses.

The democratic principle has not been confined to the faculty decisions. A few years ago, in his “Introduction to Political Theory” course, Professor Davison did not pass out the predetermined syllabus on the first day of class. Instead, students engaged in lengthy, thought-provoking conversations about what the class could be and together designed an ever-tentative syllabus. Professor Davison smiles as he fondly remembers the vibrancy of that experience. “It was one of those great moments at Vassar,” he said.

Specters of Marx in the Classroom: Reflecting on current international affairs

The Political Science course selection has evolved over time reflecting the students’ and professors’ deep concerns about current international affairs. The dominant US views of the world order during the Cold War era were condensed into two classes that were taught in this period: “Comparative politics: democratic systems,” which had an “emphasis on the constitutional, psychological, social and economic conditions which determine the success or failure of democracy,” and “Comparative politics: autocratic systems,” which considered the “causes and conditions of totalitarian revolution, the psychology of dictatorship, and patterns of power, political development and public policy in autocratic systems.” As tensions intensified in the 1970s and early 1980s with the Iranian and Nicaraguan Revolution, the department increased the number of courses dealing with Cold War issues. If in other Cold War battlefields, such as Latin America, it was unimaginable to read one of the most feared and banned authors of the 20th century in a university setting, at Vassar it was imaginable. Numerous courses on Marx, focusing on his theoretical and ideological groundings, were offered in the department throughout the latter part of the Cold War. Today, Marx's writings are still studied and analyzed by Vassar's political science students in numerous classes, among them Professor Sidney Plotkin's class on the 'Politics of Capitalism.' A dedication of both students and the faculty in unraveling the complexities of international relations continues to characterize the Political Science Department.

Voicing the Different: Fears, doubts, and interests

Although Political Science professors have applauded students’ classroom performances across the board, several faculty members have noted that the spark of debate has subsided in comparison to years past, perhaps in part due to the fact that the political opinions of the student body have become less radical. Professor Stephen Rock notes that the conservative voices on campus, though they remained in the minority, once provided his classes with a larger diversity of political ideology. Today, however, he says that these conservative viewpoints rarely rise to the surface, as the overwhelming liberal majority at Vassar makes it difficult for the College to attract students who hold such beliefs. Thinking back to the beginning of his time at Vassar, Rock recalls a small yet vocal conservative student group that published a student newsletter entitled The Spectator, which served as a conservative alternative to the Miscellany News. Today, this publication no longer exists, reflecting the dissolution of avenues for politically diverse views on campus. In the same vein, Professor Adelaide Villmoare touches upon a similar change, remarking that the extremely assertive, radical student groups prevalent at the end of the 1960s are less visible today. To some teachers, this decline of extreme political ideologies has, at times, come at the expense of a vibrant classroom atmosphere: in Professor Zachariah Mampilly’s “Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism” course, students’ fear of boldly voicing their opinions and their desire to appear politically correct oftentimes yielded surface-level discussions. These changes and potential limitations aside, however, the student opinions within the Department have continued to expand in other ways. Sensitive to the changes and trends in the international community and at home, student reflections in the wake of September 11th, for instance, has revealed a growing interest in U.S. relations with “Middle Eastern” countries, particularly through thesis topics and course enrollment. Since 2001, Political Science majors have produced theses such as: Red, White, Blue and Green: Saudi-American Relations, the Modern Saudi Opposition & American Policy Language; Is September 11, 2001 a “Clash of Civilizations?”; Going Ballistic: The Missile Defense Plans of the Bush Administration; and The Lessons of Postwar Reconstruction in Germany and Japan and Their Application to Postwar Iraq: Guidance for the Bush Administration and the Postwar Administrators. In addition, according to Professor Rock, classes such as U.S. Foreign Policy and Arms Control increased in popular demand after 9/11, much like they did during the heights of the Cold War.

Diversity in the department: Approaching multidisciplinary politics

In 1990 Professor Luke Harris arrived through the Minority Dissertation Fellowship Program, created to help break down obstacles of racial discrimination and bring faculty of color from graduate schools to begin teaching in elite college institutions. One year later, he became the first black faculty member to be offered a tenured-track teaching position. Today, one-third of the Political Science Department faculty members are persons of color, a statistic that speaks about successes and not exceptions. Harris notes how many schools, especially large universities—such as UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Yale—do not have more than two tenured black professors. The diversity within the department over the last twenty years to also include an increasing number of female faculty members reflects a departure from the traditional composition within the Political Science academy, which has been dominated in many schools by white male faculty.

In relation to this diversity of backgrounds and interests among faculty, different pedagogical approaches to the discipline are continually explored in order to empower excluded voices. At times, professors and students across the college’s departments gather around food, tea, and wine, to talk with one another about challenging the borders of political experience and how to bring multiple worlds into their learning. No one watches the clock to limit their conversations to their scheduled duration. The clocks hour hand runs its lap and no one is counting. Not numbers, but rather yawns, empty bottles, plates full of crumbs and cold food, and sore throats signal the end of that day’s adda. The borders of scheduled class time fall apart like a dam unfit to contain the power of water’s playful currents. When students pour cups of tea for a final project in a political science classroom or during intern office hours or study breaks in the lounge, they feel their learning comes from a source beyond them, a source they cannot reference precisely, but that reminds them of home and of something else.

The different worlds that have been invited into the department have enriched department life over the last two decades and led to elaborations on multidisciplinary approaches to the study of politics. These have featured frequent collaborations with other departments and organizations to provide Vassar political science students with an education that emphasizes cross-campus discourse and the diversity of approaches to and significance of political phenomena. As early as 1967-1968, collaboration between the Political Science Department and other departments was on the table in the hiring process, as Professor Bunnell – who specialized on politics in Asia and was hired in part due to his expertise – was expected to teach a class within the newly established Asian Studies Program. Today, many faculty members teach classes which are cross-listed with other departments (including Women’s Studies, Environmental Studies, Latin American Studies, Asian Studies, Jewish Studies, Urban Studies, Africana Studies, International Studies, etc). In doing so, these courses bring together students from different majors to discuss issues from various disciplinary perspectives. Since the 1980s, the Political Science Department has also jointly sponsored lectures (open to the entire Vassar Community) with Asian Studies, Urban Studies, Hispanic Studies, Latin American Studies, Africana Studies, Sociology, and Women’s Studies, to name a few. Furthermore, the department has teamed up with student organizations as diverse as the Vassar International Student’s Association, Poder Latino, Feminist Majority, the Queer Coalition of Vassar College. The Forum for Political Thought, and Amnesty International to bring a range of lectures and events to campus and continue the political and social discourse outside of the classroom. This emphasis on a multidisciplinary approach has greatly enriched the educational experience of Vassar political science students, as it has fostered conversation across campus and brought a wider array of approaches and views to the study of political phenomena.

Forging on...

There were nine of us—members of the Political Science Majors’ Committee—who came together to assemble this account. We have had serious discussions on how we can make this a department History, and to say the least, have come to an agreement that what we produce is just one view of this department, this college, ourselves. Since faculty members past and present were our main resources of information, their stories have become very central to the account. We, nevertheless, hope that we have also demonstrated how integral students (as well as donors, supporters, and administrators) are to the life of this department. The fact that we have been enchanted with such tremendous power to write these words is testimony to the many possibilities this department holds. Along with many interviews with professors, we also explored past course catalogues dating from 1865 to the present, theses written by Political Science alumnae, and documents from the Vassar College Library Special Collections.

We have only hoped to speak what we saw; express what we felt; voice what we believed needed to be voiced. We explored and wrote about what intrigued us most. So much more can still be said. From the first political economy class to Administrative Assistant Beth McCormick’s ever-present positive demeanor to next semester’s department-sponsored lecture, we could even begin again. How/where do we continue/begin (again)?


We would like to give special thanks to Andrew Davison. We thank him for his complete trust in us with the enormity of this project, as well as the guidance he gave us throughout. We would also like to thank Aly Massoud who worked with us closely in conducting much of the research on the early stages of this project. Finally, we would like to give special thanks to Dean Rogers, Vassar's specialist in Special Collections, who helped us traverse through the archives held at the Vassar College Library.

Written by: Thomas Facchine '10, Rachel Hui '09, Darren Kwong '09, Janeen Madan '09, Maria José Mendez '09, Kelly Tan '09, Sophia Williams '09, Tiina Vaisanen '09, and Jenni Wong '09.