Politics department evolves, expands

By Blake Rasmussen '05

Since 1982, few departments at Cornell have been as stable as the politics triumvirate of Rob Sutherland, Craig Allin, and David Loebsack. And yet, since 2004, no department has experienced as much upheaval as these occupants of South Hall.

Besides adding two half-time positions, including hiring Assistant Professor Aparna Thomas in 2004, the politics department has dealt with new responsibilities, restructured classes, and replaced Loebsack, who left academia for practical politics after being elected to Congress.

“It was probably the department that set a record for not changing,” said Sutherland. “But these current changes will have a very profound and cumulative effect.”

Amidst the upheaval, the department known for its steadiness is decidedly forward-looking.

“With a substantially re-made department we need to go back to the drawing board,” said Allin. “We need to reconsider the major. We need to think about what resources we have available to us and how to disperse them.”

This is certainly a new problem for the politics department. The department broke off from history in the 1960s, after which Sutherland and Nicholas Berry re-wrote the major, added classes, and then hired Allin in 1972. Loebsack replaced Berry in 1982 and continued with Sutherland and Allin for 24 years until Iowa voters sent him to Washington.

“It just happened so suddenly,” said Thomas, who also teaches women’s studies courses. “All of us for a few days were in shock. We were of course delighted for him and just thrilled. He has left a void because he was such a huge part of the department.”

“But,” she added, “It has also allowed us to find a replacement for him, whom we’re very excited about.”

That replacement is another David the department stalwarts can’t stop raving about.

David Yamanishi, a graduate of UCLA and currently teaching at Michigan State, will join the faculty in the fall.

“David Yamanishi is like a one-man liberal arts college,” said Allin. “I’m not sure there’s any course in the department he can’t teach. His breadth of preparation is amazing.”

Yamanishi quickly impressed everyone he met while visiting campus to be interviewed and to teach a simulated class.

“The students were rooting for him from the very beginning,” said Sutherland.

Yamanishi, for his part, wanted to come to Cornell for the strong liberal arts atmosphere and for One-Course- At-A-Time.

“It was attractive to teach in an environment where no one was distracted,” he said. “Under OCAAT even the students who aren’t majors are into it because they have nothing else going on.”

Besides a lack of distraction, OCAAT provides the politics department with many opportunities.

Sutherland is known for taking students to study politics in places like Miami, New Orleans, or the Carribean for an entire block. The department also attracts quality guest lecturers, a fact Allin attributes to the block plan.

Recent guests include then Congressman Jim Leach (whom Loebsack replaced) team-teaching with Sutherland, or Dr. Olga Manvhulina, a Russian-trained expert on U.S. foreign policy who filled in for Loebsack.

“This was like asking someone on the other side of the Cold War to teach United States foreign policy,” said Allin. “This has been really cool.”

Students use blocks to do independent activities as well. Steve Wieland ’06 took a block to work on Loebsack’s campaign in late 2005. Michelle Knowland ’06 spent a summer as a Cornell Fellow in the Minnesota Governor’s Office helping to bring innovative ideas to the governor’s attention. Still others have worked anywhere from campaign trails to newsrooms to law offices.

The best main attraction, however, remains the faculty.

“The professors are brilliant. They’re very conscious of what’s going on in the world and push you to be your academic best,” said Knowland.

Others stress how active and knowledgeable the faculty is.

“When you live in Iowa you’re in a really important state politically,” said Wieland. “Being in the politics department really gives you a sense of what’s going on.”

Still, the department hopes to continue to improve student opportunities.

The goal in the coming years, says Allin, is to get every one of the department’s majors off campus on an internship, which he hopes can be accomplished with the new Berry Center for Economics, Business, and Public Policy—endowed with a $5 million gift from James McWethy ’65. The Berry Center is also funding a new faculty position in public policy that politics will share with the economics and business department.

Yet more change may be in store for the department in the next few years. Sutherland has already moved to a half-time position, taking on more administrative duties, especially as director of the Cornell Fellows program. Though his current arrangement only runs through the ’07–’08 year, he says it’s conceivable he could add another three-year term to that.

Allin, on the other hand, doesn’t plan on going anywhere.

“I still enjoy it, although I can picture myself doing it a little less,” he said. “My role model is Addison Ault. He went to half time, but no one would ever want him to go away.”