William and Mary
Larry Evans
Larry Evans

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Newton Family Professor, Government

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Rep. Eric Cantor at Charter Day

January 14, 2011 by

In a few weeks, on February 4, Rep. Eric Cantor, the new Majority Leader of the U.S. House, will be the main speaker and receive an honorary degree at Charter Day, the annual ceremony where the W&M community celebrates the anniversary of the royal charter that created the College back in 1693.

Cantor is a great choice for Charter Day speaker.  For one, he is a 1988 graduate of the W&M law school and since 2000 has represented Virginia’s 7th district in the House.  The 7th district includes much of Richmond and Henrico County and is home to many of our graduates and current students.

But local ties aside, Eric Cantor is also widely recognized on both sides of the partisan aisle as one of our smartest and most capable members of Congress.  Shortly after his first election, Tom DeLay, then the House Republican Whip, recognized Cantor’s talents and made him part of the party whip system in the chamber as a freshman member.  Cantor quickly rose to Chief Deputy Whip in 2003, and was unanimously elected House Republican Whip in 2009.

Within Congress, the whips help formulate their party’s legislative program, provide colleagues with information about bills and the floor schedule, and take the lead in lobbying wavering members to stay with the party position on major roll call votes, among other tasks.  Their role in the coalition building process is absolutely crucial.

By all accounts, Rep. Cantor performed brilliantly as a whip.  When the Republicans assumed majority status in 2011, his colleagues selected him to be Majority Leader.  Only 47 years old, he looks like a good bet to one day be Speaker of the House, the third ranking constitutional office in American national government.

The current policy agenda in Washington is rife with controversy, as our elected representatives attempt to grapple with the competing demands from their constituents to reduce the federal budget deficit while still maintaining funding for highly popular programs like Social Security, Medicare, defense, and so on.  The numbers simply do not add up and the challenges this creates for the Congress are truly daunting.  Moreover, the country must deal with these enormously difficult policy and political tradeoffs during a time of economic recession and high unemployment.

As House Majority Leader, Cantor will be at the very center of these efforts for the next two years and probably much longer.  We’re fortunate to be able to count him as one of our graduates and his appearance at Charter Day is yet another indicator of the historic ties that exist between the College and the very highest levels of American government.

W. Lee Rawls, an appreciation

December 9, 2010 by

W. Lee Rawls

This past week, the College of William and Mary lost a great friend and mentor, Lee Rawls.

Lee was a career-long participant in the policy making process in Washington, D.C. Fresh out of the Navy in the early 1970s, he first went to work for the Environmental Protection Agency, and then quickly moved to the staff of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.  For the next four decades, he held a wide variety of positions in the legislative and executive branches, and made periodic forays with law firms and advocacy organizations.  But mostly he was a public servant.  Over the years, he served as Chief of Staff to Senator Pete Domenici, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs at the U.S. Dept. of Justice, Chief of Staff to Senator Bill Frist, Chief of Staff to the Senate Majority Leader, and Chief of Staff and then Senior Counsel to the Director of the FBI.

This impressive resume, however, only hints at what made Lee Rawls special.  Lee had strong political views, enjoyed a good fight, and was remarkably free of pettiness.  As a young staffer on Environment and Public Works, he learned about legislative strategy and what can be achieved through the lawmaking process by working for and observing some of the best and most constructive politicians in the business – Howard Baker, Pete Domenici, the list goes on.

There’s been a lot of loose talk of late about the evils of partisanship, self-interested politicians, and a broken Congress.  Lee recognized this kind of talk as bunk.

He understood that in a large diverse nation made up of flesh and blood human beings, self-interested behavior, partisanship, and political conflict are not just unavoidable – they are a healthy and critical feature of the political process.  The real contribution of the politician, he often said, is not in downplaying this conflict, or, even worse, in ignoring the din and simply implementing their own personal visions of the public good, whatever the heck that is.  Instead, politics can be a noble profession in which leaders and their aides forge the kinds of messy compromises necessary to hold together a free society.

I’ve never met anyone who had a clearer understanding of the stakes and practical logistics of governing than Lee Rawls.  For decades he was one of the most respected and well-liked political hands on both sides of the partisan aisle.  He was the kind of person that embattled members of Congress and agency officials would appoint to a senior staff position when they needed a grownup in the room.

In his spare time, over the past two decades he also served as a highly valued teacher and mentor to over 400 W&M students.  In the early 1990s, Lee mentioned to a common acquaintance of ours that he was interested in doing some part-time college teaching, and that he preferred a venue outside of Washington.  This fellow told Lee that he knew a W&M professor on leave working for the Congress.  That was me.  The three of us had lunch and it was obvious from the get-go that Lee would be a remarkable classroom teacher.  Indeed, you would have to be a complete idiot not to see the possibilities.  So, for the next 18 years through the fall of 2010, Lee traveled down to Williamsburg six or seven times each semester, teaching a one-credit seminar that usually enrolled about 15 students.

The seminar was called, “Congress, The Executive, and Public Policy,” but it was basically an introduction to Lee Rawls and his take on legislative strategy and the nature of politics.  The content was a lot more than war stories and anecdotes.  Although he played this down, Lee was a brilliant analyst, as you might expect from someone from the gene pool that also produced his uncle, the path breaking Harvard philosopher, John Rawls.  Lee was widely read in American history, the best recent scholarship about Congress, evolutionary psychology, and even a little game theory.  The richness and originality of his thinking about politics is apparent in his recent book, In Praise of Deadlock: How Partisan Struggle Makes Better Laws, which he wrote during a four-month stint as a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

The impact that Lee Rawls had on almost a generation of W&M students was profound and reflected in the many messages I received from them after his death last Sunday.  “We lost a great member of the W&M community yesterday,” one student wrote.  “He loved teaching here, and we were honored to have him.”  Other comments included: “Mr. Rawls’ class was such a great way to make sense of the health care wrangling that was to come, and I am eternally grateful to him for that;” “Lee Rawls was an amazing professor;” and “I will never forget my experience in Lee’s course.”

Above and beyond his decades of practical experience and deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the relevant scholarship, you see, what made Lee so effective with our students was the zest and joy with which he taught and wrote about American politics.  Professionally, he had nothing to gain from teaching undergraduates or taking half a year off to write a book.  The money that W&M paid him to teach his seminar was trivial, not even covering the travel and lodging expenses that he incurred year after year to make the class possible.

He enjoyed bringing to Williamsburg close friends like Steve Bell and Bill Hoagland, both former Domenici aides and two of the most knowledgeable people about the federal budget, to participate in simulation exercises with the students in his class.  Believe me, walking by the seminar room during those sessions … the enthusiasm and humor that accompanied the students’ attempts to sell Bell, Hoagland and other guests on their proposals for budget reform and other policies was palpable and infectious.  Outside of class, Lee regularly counseled students about professional opportunities.  He helped place dozens of them in internships and jobs after graduation.

For Lee’s family, of course, his death is devastating and they are in our thoughts and prayers.  For me, many W&M students, and other people who benefited from his wise counsel, well, we know that we will never have a better friend.

The Demise of the Moderates

November 3, 2010 by

Wow.  The midterm results of yesterday were an eye-popping defeat for congressional Democrats.  Although Barack Obama has at least two more years in the White House, his party has lost its sizable majority in the House and now has a truly razor thin margin in the Senate.  The biggest part of the story, however, may not be the change in party control of the House.  Instead it may be the near disappearance of ideological moderates in both chambers of Congress.

It is an old adage in American politics that the middle tends to rule.  The reasons are straightforward and go beyond our constitutional framework of separate institutions sharing power.  Imagine an ideological line that stretches from the far right to the far left, with moderate viewpoints located at the center.  If the preferences of legislators can be arrayed along that line, then policy outcomes should turn out to be near the median position.  Any proposals to move legislative outcomes in a liberal direction would be defeated by a coalition comprised of the median lawmaker and everybody to her right.  And any proposals to move the outcome in a conservative direction would be defeated by a coalition compromised of the median lawmaker and everybody to her left.  Sure, the filibuster and the 60-vote requirement for cloture complicate things in the Senate, but for generations this basic political logic has tended to drive legislation in Congress toward the center.

Not any more.

Over the past few decades, the number of conservative Democrats and (especially) liberal Republicans has dwindled to almost zero on Capitol Hill.  Last night, as I was glued to the election coverage, I was struck by the fact that so many of the Democrats losing their seats were among the few remaining ideological moderates on Capitol Hill.  And, for the most part, these Democrats were defeated by very conservative Republicans.  Just look at the Democrats that lost in Virginia – Boucher, Nye, Perriello … all ideological moderates replaced by staunch conservatives.

When the 112th Congress convenes in January, not only will there be no ideological overlap between the parties in the House and Senate, the ideological gap that exists between them will have grown to remarkable proportions.  We truly have congressional parties that are two warring ideological camps firing salvos at either other from a very wide distance.

Split party control of our national political institutions and the absence of a filibuster proof majority in the Senate means that neither party can govern without reaching across the partisan aisle.  So the key questions are this …. Are deals between the parties on major issues possible when so few participants in the bargaining actually want outcomes located near the ideological middle?  Or will our elected representatives instead prefer to stand firm, refuse to compromise, and primarily focus on posturing and gamesmanship aimed at carrying the day in the next election?

I think I know the answers to these questions and my guess is that you do too.  And I also think that we are going to miss the moderates.

What the heck is a “faculty research assignment?”

October 4, 2010 by

This semester, I’m on what we call “a faculty research assignment” at the College of William and Mary, a program that resembles in certain ways what many other colleges and universities refer to as a faculty sabbatical.  At the College, if a faculty member is categorized as “research active,” then she or he is eligible for a research assignment every seven years or so, in which that faculty member is released from teaching for a semester and expected to produce significant scholarship.

What precisely does one of these research assignments actually entail and why are they important?

The term, “sabbatical,” derives from the Latin term “sabbaticus,” which in turn is rooted in the Hebrew usage of “shabbat,” meaning a “ceasing” or “Hiatus.”  Although my day-to-day activities have shifted a bit this semester, my workload hasn’t ceased at all and I’m not on much of a hiatus.  So the distinction between our terminology, “faculty research assignment,” and the more traditional terminology makes sense.

For me, teaching and writing about politics are a vocation and an avocation.  I don’t have a bunch of hobbies and stay away from golf courses because of my complete incompetence at the game.  Instead, I mostly hack away at political science 10-12 hours most days and that is continuing over the next few months.

These days, I’m working full-time on a book manuscript that is the culmination of about a decade of research that I’ve conducted with a few dozen W&M undergraduates about the congressional whip systems and the role of party leaders on Capitol Hill.  I’m finishing about one chapter per month, and at this pace should be more than halfway toward completion in January and essentially finished with the manuscript by May.  In addition, I have some shorter writing commitments to complete over the next few months – mostly chapters for edited volumes and the like that generally get assigned to college-level courses at various universities around the country.

True, I’m not formally teaching any classes this semester during the research leave, which is a hiatus of sorts, I guess.  But I am meeting regularly with students to talk about advising issues and job opportunities.  I’m supervising two senior honors students on their yearlong projects.  Once again, I’m coordinating logistics for the class that is taught every semester by my friend and colleague, Lee Rawls, about the policy making process in Congress.  And I’m periodically making presentations around campus on topics I care about like undergraduate research.

Basically, the tradeoff is that I’m spending less time in the classroom for a few months and a lot more time finishing research projects and conducting other activities related to the nexus between teaching and faculty scholarship.  If you think that W&M students deserve to be taught be professors who have real standing as scholars in their fields, then these semester-long research assignments are an essential feature of the educational process.

Life after the Burg – Andrew Langer W&M ’93

October 1, 2010 by

Well, I’m back.  It’s been months since my last blog post and the blog czarina at W&M informs me that I am now officially a “slogger,” rather than a blogger.  Ouch!  For my first post after a long blogging sabbatical, I would like to highlight another one of our  graduates from the College.  Andrew Langer was once an international relations concentrator back in the day when my hair was mostly not grey, and he took my course about the legislative process.  Who knows, that may be why he decided to concentrate in IR rather than government.  Andrew was a very active undergraduate, deeply involved in student government and a host of other organizations, and as a result he was well known around the College.  Since then, he has done a bunch of interesting things, and most recently has headed up a libertarian foundation in Washington.  For one, he’s played a visible leadership role in the ongoing “Tea Party” movement.  I periodically see him appear in major media outlets (Fox News, etc.) and always get a kick out of it.  I asked Andrew a while back to update us on his activities since graduation.  Here’s his response….

All through my time at William and Mary, my intention upon graduation was to take my degree in International Relations (Soviet Studies) and to go to work for one of the alphabet-soup intelligence agencies within the federal government. But by the time I graduated, the Soviet Union was no more, the Cold War was essentially over, and those agencies weren’t looking for someone with little in the way of real-world international experience.

I had, however, spent every summer during college working for a law firm in New York, and I would end up becoming the reader for a blind environmental lawyer in DC—a former Assistant Attorney General whose focus was on the constitutional impacts of federal environmental law. I found myself essentially getting a graduate education in federal public policy, reading the law for 8+ hours per day—and I found myself developing a deep passion for the intricacies of constitutional law, regulatory policy, and efforts to reform federal agencies. It didn’t hurt that my father is an environmental scientist, and we would spend hours discussing the role that science plays in determining public policy prioritization.

Because of my activism at William and Mary (I was deeply involved in student government, where we were dealing with attempts to reform the Honor Council, student opposition to the then-new University Center, and a host of other issues), I’ve always felt comfortable in an advocacy role. When I left the law firm, I went into the non-profit world, doing outreach for a public-interest legal foundation focused on property rights. I spent six years as the White House and Executive Branch Lobbyist for the nation’s largest small business association, focusing on the impact of regulations on America’s small businesses. And two years ago I was asked to take over the Institute for Liberty.

It has been an interesting change of pace—while we still focus on small business here at IFL, because we’re not a member-driven organization we move much more quickly, and can deal with a broader variety of issues. We’ve also been involved in the Tea Party movement at all levels—speaking at events (I spoke at the first tea party in DC in February of 2010, and spoke at the 912DC event this past September), sponsoring events, and assisting local grassroots organizations and activists with the planning of their own.

I have remained in close contact with my friends from William and Mary – and still consider my 5 closest friends then to be my 5 closest friends now. And what has always struck me is the strength of the William and Mary alumni network in DC—a connection that has always opened doors.

A memo to prospective students – If you have the choice, I think that you should attend W&M over UVA.

April 5, 2010 by

I originally wrote this post last February. In my view, it still holds true for students considering enrollment at William & Mary in fall 2010.

Every year, tens of thousands of students include W&M and UVA among their top choices when considering where to attend college.  U.S. News and World Report and other outlets regularly include both institutions among the very best universities in the land, both for the quality of their undergraduate programs and for their relative affordability.  Personally, I’ve taught a couple of classes at UVA over the years, regularly visit and enjoy the University and city of Charlottesville, and back in the day spent 18 wonderful months there as a graduate student and teaching assistant in economics.


After two decades of working with students and faculty at the College of William and Mary and living in Williamsburg, I think that there are a lot of good reasons why the best students should prefer to attend W&M.  Here are a few of them.

1.  Although UVA prides itself on close faculty-student relationships, they cannot possibly touch the level of constructive engagement that occurs at W&M because of our smaller size.  In contrast to UVA and most other large universities, every first-year student at W&M completes a freshman seminar (comprised of 15 or fewer students) in which they work closely with a faculty member on a topic of mutual interest.  Freshmen at UVA and other large state “U’s” seldom get to interact much with full time faculty and instead take almost all of their classes in large lecture halls with hundreds of other students.

2.  In contrast to UVA, every single freshman and transfer student at W&M is assigned a faculty advisor with whom they meet multiple times during their first year of college.  We don’t rely on centralized advising offices staffed by non-faculty.  At W&M, professors handle most academic advising.  The intellectual and social transition into university life can be difficult and even scary for a new student.  Our advising system, which is fairly unique for public institutions of any size, helps smooth this transition and ensures that new students are enrolled in the classes that are right for them.  If a new student is having academic difficulties, we generally identify the problem early and get that student the help he or she needs.

3.  There are a few courses at W&M where teaching assistants – graduates students who teach undergraduates in exchange for monetary compensation or as part of their own graduate programs – play an important and frankly valuable role.  But at UVA, I know, undergraduates often feel like teaching assistants are almost ubiquitous.  Their introductory politics and economics classes, for example, typically feature two fifty-minute sessions of lecture per week by a full time faculty member (often taking place in large lecture halls) and a third, smaller, “discussion” session led by a graduate student.  Go to UVA as a freshman, and my guess is that most of your personal interactions with instructors will occur with teaching assistants, rather than full-time members of their faculty.  At W&M, you will work almost exclusively with professors, not graduate students.

4.  Although both institutions – indeed, most colleges and universities across the country – emphasize in their promotional materials the importance of collaboration on research between faculty and undergraduates, at W&M we actually “walk the walk” on undergraduate research.  Take a look at the remarkable research opportunities that Professor Margaret Saha and her colleagues in our biology department have made available to a generation of W&M undergraduates.  Or consider the collaborative opportunities that Professor Mike Tierney and his colleagues in “Project PLAID” offer to students interested in international aid.  Every summer, there are literally hundreds of undergraduate students working in Williamsburg on professional quality research with members of our faculty.  Indeed, W&M typically provides these students with free housing in one of our best dorms to help them make the financial ends meet.  There is no definitive data, but I am convinced that there is no other college or university in the country that involves a larger percentages of its undergraduates in meaningful research collaborations with faculty than does W&M.

5.  As befits a major state university with many outstanding graduate programs, there are a number of nationally-renown scholars at UVA.  Still, although the size of our faculty is smaller, the intellectual records and national stature of my colleagues at William and Mary regularly impress me.  For an illustration, consider just one of our departments, History.  Within that department, Professor Melvin Ely recently won the Bancroft Prize, which is awarded annually for the best work published each year in American history.  Professor Scott Nelson’s monograph about the folk hero, John Henry, recently won the top annual award for the best book published about U.S. social and cultural history.  And here’s the clincher.  W&M faculty have won the “Commonwealth of Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award,” the most prestigious prize for college professors in the state, more often than any other college or university, including UVA, even though the size of our faculty is much, much smaller than is the one in Charlottesville.

6.  In fairness, I think that you are more likely to see future members of the NFL or NBA participating in intercollegiate sports at UVA (although do check out this great video about Super Bowl winning coach Mike Tomlin’s fond reflections on attending W&M).  The “grounds” at UVA are physically beautiful, as is our campus in Williamsburg.  And I’m pretty sure that the parties that occur in Charlottesville are bigger, noisier, and maybe even better than what you will find here.  But after two decades and countless visits to other universities, I have come to believe that W&M students are special.  There is a student culture here of genuineness, courtesy, individuality, and seriousness of purpose.  I can’t fully describe that sense of community, exactly, but I do feel strongly that it is remarkable and real.  Whenever I invite an academic expert or policy practitioner to campus to meet with my classes, for example, these folks invariably comment about how impressive and special are our students.  Often, they tell me that they wish their own children could have had, or will have, the chance to study here.

I could go on, but you get the drift.  There’s a lot to admire about UVA.  But I firmly believe that for highly talented and dedicated young people who have the option, the best choice for them is to join the remarkable community of learning that we have at the College of William and Mary.

Life after the Burg – Angela Perkey, W&M '08

March 1, 2010 by

As an undergraduate, Angela Perkey was one of our most active and gifted students.  Angela was a Monroe Scholar, graduated from the College in just three years, did really impressive research on mentorship relations in Congress for my senior seminar, founded a public service organization in her spare time, and in general really excelled and made a difference around campus.  Last week, she was a guest blogger for the Huffington Post, discussing strategies for doing effective service work.  Angela recently touched base about her activities over the past two years….

After graduation in May 2008, I didn’t really know where life’s path would take me next.  I was an Economics and Government major, and was fortunate to land a solid job at an international accounting firm.  To be honest though, I was more excited (and relieved too!) about passing Professor Evans’ notoriously tough senior seminar exam than about the job.

The summer after graduation, I moved into my first real apartment in Washington, D.C. and began working as a tax consultant.  I quickly realized that this wasn’t my dream job or ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up’.  The problem was that although I had identified what I didn’t want to do, I still had no idea what I did want.  In the meantime, I continued leading Students Serve, the national nonprofit organization I started at William and Mary to give money to college students so that they can make a difference in the community.  I also wrote a book, Change the World, Change Your Life, to show people meaningful ways that they can help solve world problems.  (The book has just now been published.)

Like many recent graduates, I was laid off in August 2009 due to the economic downturn.  This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  I was able to reflect on my personal skill set and identify new career opportunities that interested me.  In October, I accepted an offer to join Blue Ridge Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in helping companies grow their revenue.  I found the job posting on the W&M Career Center website.  Fortunately, the position as a Business Analyst couldn’t be a better fit!  I genuinely enjoy what I’m doing and think that I’m putting the knowledge that I learned at William and Mary to good use.  I am very thankful for the continued support that the College and its community of alumni, professors, administrators, and students have given me since graduation.

Unique Class Opportunities at W&M

February 6, 2010 by

One of the advantages of teaching at W&M is that the strengths of our faculty and students, along with our location in Williamsburg, enable us to provide all kinds of special course and other curricular opportunities to our students.  Our twin commitments to academic excellence and the liberal arts mean that our faculty care about innovative teaching and that our students also expect it from us.  And the remarkable abilities of our students mean that they are open and eager to participate in such opportunities.  The College’s national reputation and its location in a major tourist town also help us draw interesting people to Williamsburg for visits.

Some semesters in my course about the U.S. Congress, I’ve often brought six to eight chiefs of staffs to U.S. Senators to W&M as part of complex simulation exercises in which students present memos to the visiting staffer offering advice about how the relevant Senator should vote on an upcoming roll call.  Other years, the College has made possible guest lectures to that class from prominent current and former members of Congress, including Rep. John Lewis, former House Speaker Thomas Foley, and former Senator Chuck Hagel.

Every year, we also bring dozens of nationally renown scholars to Williamsburg to buttress the remarkable abilities of our faculty.  This semester, I’ve organized a special class for students on the topic of party polarization in America, perhaps the most salient aspect of the current political process in Washington, based on recent commentary from pundits and even President Obama.  The causes and consequences of party polarization have also generated an enormous amount of great scholarship from leading political scientists.

So this semester, we are bringing to Williamsburg the authors of six recent and major scholarly books that explore the sources and implications of partisan polarization in the U.S. and internationally.  Around 80 students are enrolled in a government department class that is built around this lecture series.  The students are reading the six books.  During their visits, the authors of these books are delivering public lectures open to the entire W&M community in which they review their main findings and engage in “give-and-take” about their work and the topic of partisan polarization with the students and other guests.  Then, at the end of the semester, the students are responsible for integrating what they have learned via 10-12 page analytical essays about the books and the lectures.  As part of the experience, we also are providing students with additional opportunities to interact with the visiting scholars, for example, through small breakfasts and other informal meetings.

Here’s a comment that one of the visiting scholars recently emailed to me following his session with our students:  “I was really impressed with the students.  Their questions were far more complex and sophisticated than I would have expected from undergraduates.”  No surprise, there.  As prospective students and their parents consider college options, I hope that they will weigh the special curricular opportunities that W&M faculty can regularly make available to our undergraduates because of the College’s unique strengths and mission.


December 27, 2009 by

From 9/11 to exploding budget deficits and the election of our first African American president, the “aughts” were a decade of significant surprises for the nation.  There also were a lot of surprises at W&M – just to name a few, the incredible strides that the admissions office made in attracting an increasingly talented and diverse student body, the alarming budget cuts, I suppose, and of course some invigorating athletic outcomes like the 2009 football victory over that team from Charlottesville.

There will be more surprises over the next decade for the U.S. and also for the College of William and Mary.  But based on the past few years, the following ten trends strike me as almost certainly in the cards.

  1. Our students, I expect, will continue to get smarter and more accomplished.  My faculty colleagues and I would love to claim all the credit for all that our students accomplish, but the fact is that the raw material we get freshman year is very strong and getting stronger.  In contrast to most other states, the 18-22 year old demographic will not significantly diminish in size in Virginia, and abundant professional opportunities throughout the Commonwealth will continue to attract smart parents who care a lot about educating their children, further enhancing our applicant pool.  Ten years from now, our current students, then in their thirties, will almost certainly echo what I regularly hear from today’s alumni  – “There’s no way in hell that I could get into W&M given the current standards.”
  2. My guess is there will be even greater variance in course sizes at the College.  When I arrived at W&M in 1987, most classes were comprised of around 35 students.  This cookie-cutter approach to class sizes doesn’t make much sense, at least to me.  Certain material, especially for introductory classes, can be effectively taught in large lecture courses with 200 or more students.  Other courses, research-intensive classes that require a lot of close faculty-student interaction, for instance, need to be much smaller, enrolling 10 students or less.  Over the past few years, we have done a better job at tailoring class sizes more to the underlying material and the course-specific needs of student and this should continue.  My guess is that we will see more small classes and more large classes at the College over the next ten years.
  3. In my view, the overall size of the W&M student body may have to grow somewhat.  We now have around 5,700 undergraduates and almost 2,000 graduate students at the College.  The increase in the number of university-aged students in Virginia and the growing cost of a private university education will substantially increase the demand for entrance at W&M.  I think that you can count on there being serious pressure to grow the size of our student body by four or five hundred students.  Informed people disagree about the appropriate size for the College, but in my view at least, increases of this magnitude should be doable.  For one, every year more of our students participate in study-abroad programs or complete outside internships that grant credit, thereby opening up some spaces for additional students here in Williamsburg.  Still, an important challenge for the College may be accommodating a somewhat larger student body while maintaining the close faculty-student relationships that are our hallmark.
  4. Building on the last point, the proportion of W&M undergraduates who spend at least one semester away from Williamsburg studying abroad, or participating in programs like our Washington semester that involve internships for course credit, will probably rise significantly.  Part of the magic of the liberal arts is that what we teach and learn about in courses at the College really does inform real world experiences beyond the Ivory Tower.  More and more, I think, W&M faculty and students are going to look for ways to integrate traditional academic work with internships and other applied experiences.  And as the world continues to grow smaller and people’s life experiences become less defined by nations and borders, I expect that more and more W&M students will travel and study outside the U.S. as part of their undergraduate educations.
  5. Unfortunately, I fear that the percentage of operating funds that we receive from the state will continue to decline, probably falling below 10 percent by the end of the next decade.  When I arrived at W&M in 1987, about one-third of our operating budget was covered by the state.  After the latest round of cuts from Richmond, that contribution is now down to just 14 percent.  Ouch!  However, the end of the Obama stimulus infusion in December 2010, growing health care and transportation expenditures by the Commonwealth, and the mushrooming federal budget deficit together will necessitate additional waves of budget cuts for public higher education in Virginia and across the nation.  This is unfortunate but unavoidable, at least in my view.
  6. For this reason, tuition at public universities in Virginia and the U.S. probably will have to increase substantially.  The total cost (tuition, room and board, books, and travel) at W&M is now around $22,000 per academic year for in-state students and about twice that for non-Virginians.  Expect those figures to rise significantly, especially for Virginia residents.  Even at $22,000 the total price tag of a W&M education is still substantially below the real cost of providing that service.  In previous decades, we could rely on Richmond to make up the difference, with taxpayers essentially subsidizing families with children in public colleges and universities.  As a result of the aforementioned budget deficits, however, those days appear to be gone.  A key challenge for the College also will be a continued commitment to student aid so that all deserving students have the financial means necessary to attend W&M.
  7. Even though W&M will maintain its historic commitment to the liberal arts, I expect there to be increased emphasis on professional development and the myriad ways that we can prepare students for graduate programs and the world of work.  In my view, there is no better preparation for making a contribution in the workplace than a broad exposure to the liberal arts, especially the emphasis on critical reasoning and writing skills.  But as we complete the building of our new and expanded career center at the College, I believe that we are going to seriously step up the help we give students in clarifying their professional plans and provide more concrete and practical guidance about how to translate those plans into reality.
  8. The W&M name brand is going to get even stronger.  This is just one guy’s opinion, so take my view for what it’s worth.  But I really think that much of what passes for higher education in this country is dysfunctional.  So many American students attend mega-universities with 30,000 or more undergraduates, take almost all of their classes in large impersonal lecture formats, and over four years never really get to know any of their professors.  Within this environment of research-oriented institutions dominated by graduate teaching assistants and faculty focused almost exclusively on publications over teaching, W&M stands out among our premier public universities as exactly the kind of place that most parents want to send their children.  We will continue to have a uniquely attractive market niche in higher education.  As the College becomes more adept at communicating its core strengths, W&M will grow even more visible and prominent.
  9. Our graduates are going to accomplish some really exciting things over the next decade or so.  Just look at the quality of their academic and community service work while they are here.  Personally, I’m looking forward to the November when one of my former students in GOVT 370, Legislative Processes, gets elected to the U.S. Congress.  I’ve been teaching that class at the College for over 20 years, and given the abilities of my students it is inevitable that sometime soon one of them will end up as a member of the U.S. House or Senate.  And you can be sure that within a day or two of that election, I’ll be in contact with the lucky alum asking about internships for our current students.
  10. God willing, I’ll still be here in ten years when 2019 draws to a close.  When I started at the College in the late 1980s, the plan was to spend three or four years at W&M, do as much fieldwork in Washington as possible for my research, publish a book and some articles, and then move on to a bigger university.  But I quickly became enamored with the remarkable intellectual environment and resources at the College, and deeply impressed by the quality and decency of the students here.  Working at the College year after year also affected my professional values in subtle ways, coaxing forth a fairly deep commitment to the linkages that exist between research and teaching, as well as other aspects of the W&M culture.  So unless I get hit by a bus, or I can’t keep up with rising standards for faculty at the College (a real possibility, given the quality of our recent hires) I’m here to stay.  Happy New Year (and decade)!

The Deficit Dilemma

December 12, 2009 by

Here are comments I delivered as part of a really interesting conference about budget deficits and the global economy held yesterday at the Miller Center at UVA.

I’m a faculty member at the College of William and Mary where as you know Mr. Jefferson, the founder of UVA, received his own education.  It is always a pleasure to visit UVA, where he successfully applied so much of what he learned while in Williamsburg.

There are two especially salient features of the current political alignment in contemporary American national government.  First, by all accounts, the U.S. is facing daunting and growing budget deficits over the next few decades.  The federal deficit projected for fiscal year 2010, for example, is $1.4 trillion.  By the end of the next fiscal year, the level of Federal debt held by the public will rise to about 60 percent of GDP.  The longer-term outlook is even bleaker.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the deficits projected to accumulate over the next decade will add about $9 trillion more to the debt.  By all accounts, the current budgetary trajectory is unsustainable.  And to make matters worse, recent estimates by the Federal Reserve indicate that unemployment levels may remain elevated for at least another five or six years, further complicating efforts to get the deficit under control.

Second, our national politics are increasingly structured by intense partisan polarization.  According to the best measures, twenty years ago there was a substantial overlap between the roll call ideology of Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of Congress.  Dozens of House members had voting records more conservative than the most liberal of the Republicans.  In the current House, in contrast, that overlap between the parties has all but disappeared.   The shrinking ideological middle on Capitol Hill is also apparent in the Senate.  Not surprisingly, the partisan polarization that occurs at the elite level reflects divergent views among ordinary voters, depending on whether they identify more with the Democratic or Republican parties.

Now on to the main questions posed to this panel – What is the feasibility of reforming U.S. fiscal policy and, given the intense party polarization that now characterizes American politics, how might a coalition for reform be built?  Not easily, or any time soon, I fear.

For one, the kinds of broad policy changes that are needed to confront deficits of this magnitude – overhauls of the major entitlement programs, increases in taxes, and so forth – are precisely the types of initiatives that divide the two political parties.  Republicans and some moderate Democrats are steadfastly opposed to tax hikes.  Members of both parties, but especially Democrats, are reluctant to implement the massive cuts in domestic policy programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security that will be needed to significantly bring down the deficit.  The cleavages that are created by deficit control reinforce partisan polarization, in other words, and bipartisan accords to combat the problem are highly unlikely unless there are substantial changes in the incentives facing elected officials on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

There is some momentum now in the Washington policy community for the creation of a bipartisan commission that would recommend a reform package for reducing the deficit.  This package would be guaranteed an up-or-down vote in both chambers of Congress.  A number of moderate Democrats, including Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota, have endorsed the commission idea.  The ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, is also a cosponsor.

Indeed, there is some historical evidence in support of such an approach.   In 1981, the Congress created a bipartisan commission chaired by Alan Greenspan to deal with a short-term financial crisis then facing the Social Security program.  The Commission’s recommendations were included in 1983 legislation that most scholars believe helped resolve the problem (for a time).

Along those lines, since 1988 Congress has delegated responsibility for decisions about closing military bases to independent commissions appointed by the President, with the panels’ recommendations being implemented unless the Congress passes a resolution of disapproval.  The “BRAC” process is widely viewed as a policy success precisely because it has helped countervail the parochial incentives of individual members to keep open the military installations located in their own districts.

It is highly unlikely, however, that an analogous approach to reform will be feasible anytime soon for the daunting budgetary challenges confronting the U.S.  Republicans may initially endorse the proposal because the bipartisan makeup of the commission would grant them equal weight, at least during this stage of the process.  But if the commission recommends significant tax increases – not an unlikely outcome given that revenue in comparison to the size of the economy is at historically low levels – GOP members of Congress will almost certainly walk away from the recommendations because tax limitation is so central to their party’s core ideology and message.  Democratic leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California, oppose the commission idea because they do not want to cede power to Republicans and also doubt that the minority will in the end accept any compromise.

Most important, the reforms required to address the nation’s fiscal challenges would have to be far-reaching and raise fundamental issues about the size of government and its role in the daily lives of Americans.  Such changes would be far more consequential than the 1983 Social Security legislation or the closure of a few hundred military bases.  For the time being, the commission idea seems unworkable.

Also, bipartisan compromise at the elite level may not be essential for comprehensive fiscal reform to pass.  Under unified government, anyway, partisan polarization may not be that much of an impediment.  The 1974 Budget Act “fast tracks” the budget resolution and reconciliation procedures, which enables determined majorities to work their will in the Senate, as well as the House.  If, as is currently the case, a single party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House, that party could conceivably pass significant deficit reduction legislation without much support from across the partisan aisle.

Instead, the evidence indicates that in the 111th Congress we do not have majorities in both chambers and presidential support for the kinds of spending reductions and/or revenue hikes necessary to significantly reform U.S. fiscal policy.  Rhetoric aside, the coalition forming behind health care reform seems more committed to extending coverage than to reducing costs.  The $848 billion compromise package recently introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada, for example, will cut the deficit by about $130 billion over ten years – nontrivial savings, to be sure, but at best only a first step toward meaningful fiscal change.  Significant reform will only be feasible when the priorities and preferences of elected officials are substantially altered, which in turn will require significant changes in the mix of pressures that they are confronting from party activists, advocacy groups, and ordinary voters.

Congressional scholarship and the historical record indicate that such a shift will probably turn on five main conditions.  First, there need to be policy proposals that if enacted would actually address the underlying problem.  Second, the costs of inaction for ordinary Americans must be perceived as short-term, if not immediate.  Third, voters need to be able to link these costs directly to the actions and inactions of their elected representatives.  Fourth, the magnitude of the costs for ordinary Americans must be severe.  And fifth, the costs need to affect a sufficient proportion of the population for voting majorities to form on Capitol Hill in favor of major change.

The first condition is the (relatively) easy one.  Even a cursory review of reports by the Brookings Institution, the Concord Coalition, the Heritage Foundation, and other organizations produces an abundance of initiatives that probably would reduce the deficit if there was sufficient political will to make them law.  Some combination of spending caps, entitlement reform, and revenue increases will do the trick.

Together, the other four conditions are the more vexing problem.  To be sure, Americans are disturbed by the burgeoning budget deficits.  In recent polls, people have responded about two-to one that the government should focus more on reducing the deficit than on boosting the economy (NBC News/WSJ Polls, June-November 2009).   But most Americans do not perceive the costs from the structural fiscal imbalance to be immediate, significant, and directly linked to specific decisions made by policy makers.  Simply put, there is not a pervasive sense of crisis, which likely will be essential to produce the political support necessary for comprehensive reform to take place.

By most accounts, a crisis is in the works.  The gargantuan deficits projected over the next few decades may significantly crowd out private investment, seriously constricting our economic well-being.  An even more significant concern is that these deficits may produce a financial upheaval in which the U.S. would be unable to sell Treasury bonds at viable rates, or that inflation fears might seriously undermine global confidence in the U.S. economy.  But absent some sense among American voters that the budget deficits will produce such dire consequences in the near-term, it will be difficult for coalition leaders to convince the public to support the spending cuts and tax hikes necessary to put our fiscal house in order.

Public education efforts, such as the “Fiscal Wake-Up Tours” currently underway by the Concord Coalition, Brookings, and other organizations, may help sensitize opinion leaders and citizens to the dangers of the exploding federal deficit.  And when a sense of impending crisis does eventually emerge, a bipartisan commission of the sort proposed by Senators Conrad and Gregg might help provide elected officials with the political cover necessary to act.  But meaningful reform will not occur until the perceived costs of inaction are overwhelming to ordinary Americans.  As a country, we are not there yet.