Academics Say Higher Education Prepared Them for Higher Office
When sociology professor John Trammell ran for Congress in 2014, he was “amazed” by how well prepared he was to be a politician.
Public speaking, prolific writing, research, the internal politics of higher education and the experience of being critiqued through peer review — all were skills applicable both in the ivory tower and in politics.
But Trammell’s higher education didn’t prepare him for the media spotlight and the pressure to raise funds in one of the highest profile races in the cycle after his opponent and fellow Randolph-Macon College Professor Dave Brat had knocked off House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary.
And debates tested Trammell’s ability to step away from his academic training.
“I’m a social scientist and I’m trained in research methodology, and the facts matter to me,” Trammell said. “As an academic, I just wanted it to be about the facts. As a candidate, I had to make it about the facts and these other things as well.”
Brat told CQ Roll Call a couple weeks after he had beaten Trammell last November that while the media made fun of him for doing 20-minute stump speeches entirely on economic theory, it worked to his favor in that voters recognized his honesty and genuine concern.
“They’d say, ‘Brat’s going off on his lectures, and dah dah dah dah dah,’ and make fun of the things. But the people liked it,” Brat said at the time.
But not every academic-turned-politican agrees that’s the best way to win over a crowd.
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who was a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said trading the classroom for constituent meetings required a shift in her communication style.
“You never want to lecture your constituents and you need to talk with them, not to them like you do in a classroom,” she said. “If you’re a teacher you’re used to answering questions, so sometimes when you’re in politics you shouldn’t perhaps be so direct. … I tend to give a straight answer and that’s become my reputation.”
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., a former teacher and president of Mayland Community College, acknowledged the danger of becoming too academic.
“I think it’s true for all of us who’ve ever been behind a lectern, I tend to do that,” Foxx said.
But Titus said her experience as a professor prepared her for both the campaign trail and serving in office afterward.
“You have the confidence to stand up in front of a room which is sometimes not paying attention or sometimes hostile, so that’s good training,” Titus said. “Having been a political scientist made the whole process of being in office easier.”
The current Congress includes a number of members from both sides of the aisle with experience teaching or leading colleges and universities. Sen. Elizabeth Warren , D-Mass., was a professor at Harvard Law School, and Sen. Ben Sasse , R-Neb., served as president of Midland University. Rep. Tom Cole , R-Okla., is a former history professor and Rep. Daniel Lipinski , D-Ill., taught political science at both the University of Notre Dame and the University of Tennessee.
Some former academics who reached the highest levels of government haven’t been able to escape the characteristics that made them successful in academia. President Barack Obama, a former constitutional law professor, has been criticized at times as the “lecturer-in-chief ” for the professorial tone he sometimes takes. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a one-time history professor, was criticized for “teaching a course as House speaker .”
Foxx also noted the specialization in higher education can be at odds with the demands on members of Congress, who “have to know a little bit about a huge number of issues.”
But she said her administrative experience in education has helped her manage her roles as a member of the House Rules committee and as chairman of the Higher Education and Workforce Training subcommittee.
And, she said that while colleagues may tease her for having been a schoolteacher because of her disciplinarian attitude, she is often asked to preside during difficult votes.
Trammell said he saw his run for office as putting his teaching and advocacy for service learning into practice, and added he has made himself “available to run in 2016.”
And as for Foxx and Titus, both expressed interest in teaching again.
“I’m going to look into teaching a course back here [at a D.C. university], they say you can teach one course while you’re in Congress,” Titus said. “I miss being in the classroom.”
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