The Great Dysfunction as Product of the Academy

January, 2014

Washington -- As the Great Recession continues to be drawn out by the Great Dysfunction in the nation's legislative branch, news comes that a local university is actually teaching techniques that abet governmental breakdown and chronic political division. For around $50,000, one can even get a master's degree in the specialty.

The degree is offered by the "Graduate School of Political Management" at George Washington University.
Thanks to Joseph Morton of the Omaha World-Herald for bringing it to light in an article about how new fundraising techniques -- taught by a "fundraising professor" -- get around campaign finance laws.

A closer look at this educational program shows that GWU also offers "graduate certificates" in Campaign Strategy, PACs and Political Management, Public Relations, and Online Politics. The faculty is largely adjunct, made up of practitioners. Many do not have graduate degrees themselves, but doubtless they have experience in flacking, spinning, money laundering, truth twisting, trolling, and other mendacities that have led us into the Great Dysfunction.

A GWU webpage makes clear that Political Mangement is not a political science or public policy program. I should hope not! And therein lies the problem: loose or non-existent standards in both the academy and in contemporary politics. Unfortunately, they feed on each other. The academy should not condone, let alone teach and celebrate, behaviors that result in political gridlock and destruction of time-tested legislative norms.

When I was a graduate student in the academic discipline of political science, I received a master's in public policy and a doctorate in Politikwissenschaft from the University of Nebraska and FU Berlin, respectively. Both degrees required theses to demonstrate written scholarship. Coursework at NU included, for me, jurisprudence taught by Wallace Rudolph at the law school; inferential statistics taught at the math department; constitutional law taught by Jack Rogers, who was simultaneously the director of research for the state legislature; and prerequisites to meet requirements in foreign languages. At FU Berlin I was guided by the estimable Ekkehart Krippendorff. Both degrees were granted only after hours of oral defense of theses before established scholars.

Accordingly, I have a decent knowledge of and respect for the institutions and practices that hold societies together, and a disdain for abuse of them. Many people I've served with over the years, regardless of political party, shared the view that the art of governing well was the highest goal, not, as the GWU program implicitly extols, the Political Management arts of commanding the news cycle, controlling scandals, gerrymandering, or inventing "destination" fund raising.

Political Management has routed Good Government. GWU now recruits students with the promise that graduates of its Political Management program will be in high demand to staff Congress and its related organizations. Sadly, that's probably true. Tellingly, it's also a two way street: the Nebraska congressman who is featured in the OWH (and in an earlier New York Times article), Adrian Smith, is also a member of the GWU program's adjunct faculty. His re-election will signify and solidify the adoption of political management norms in his legislative district, and represent yet more erosion of the values that once guided the nation's highest legislative body.

One way out of the Great Dysfunction -- or at least not make it worse -- would be to restore standards in political science. Where is the GWU political science faculty voice? Has it been mollified with the GWU statement that the Political Management program is "not political science or public policy" so that GWU can reap nice revenues off of these cozy relationships? It certainly appears so.