Recent from Features
By Jon Rutter
E. Fletcher McClellan, Kyle Kopko and April Kelly-Woessner teach political science students at Elizabethtown College.
The exposure is a good thing for the political science department—and the public.
Reporters come calling for insight. Students tend to take notice.
The politically savvy have long been on to E-town.
There’s no magic correlation between the educators’ public visibility—an ongoing phenomenon—and freshman poly sci counts. They fluctuate.
(Year to year, according to McClellan and Kelly-Woessner, transfers from other majors at E-town make up a significant portion of the incoming.)
Still, as American political hypertension escalates, the professors’ resolutely objective approach is looking increasingly like a gold standard.
Kopko, for example, according to LNP political reporter Sam Janesch, has become “pretty much my go-to” among experts at local colleges and universities.
“He doesn’t shy away from the fact that he’s a Republican committeeman in Elizabethtown. But all of his analysis is pretty even-keeled. We would hear from readers if it wasn’t.”
And E-town would get an earful if professors preached a partisan line.
Despite the myth of colleges as liberal indoctrination mills, says McClellan (the progressive), and no matter a professor’s politics, ‘we’re not going to proselytize. That’s what I tell parents’ … of prospective students.
Instead, they encourage data-based critical thinking over ideology. In today’s polarized “fake-news” climate, they work to enhance the revered campus culture of tolerance and acceptance.
Meanwhile, they continue to have a word with the rest of the globe.
“The point of all this is to get the best research out to the public,” McClellan says.
“We all have our own lens on the world,” Kopko says. “I think that’s the big trick, getting people to understand that.”
Naturally at E-town, the effort starts in the classroom.
Great 100-level course instruction—and open houses and recruiting—are likely the prime motivators for new poly sci students, says Kelly-Woessner, the chair of the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Legal Studies.
News stories and media coverage were at the bottom of “a long list” of things that recently surveyed students said influenced their college search, she adds.
Nevertheless, coverage matters, now more than ever.
Kelly-Woessner, the winner of E-town’s inaugural Ranck Prize for Research Excellence, discussed the role of the public intellectual when she gave her 2018 awards speech.
She’s done just that for more than 10 years via the New York Times, the Washington Post and LNP Sunday op-eds.
As a co-author of the 2011 book “The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education,” Kelly-Woessner has also delved deeply into the decline of political tolerance among youth.
All while effectively maintaining political anonymity.
Students cannot readily discern whether she’s Republican or Democrat, says Kory Trout, a junior political science and legal studies double major who leads the College Democrats.
It’s a little different with Kopko, who advises the College Republicans. And McClellan, who has advised the College Democrats for some 30 years.
“My socialization happened during the Buchanan administration” (1857-1861), cracks the dry-witted McClellan.
“I was Fletcher’s student once upon a time,” reflects Kopko, sitting at an Alpha Hall conference table with his former prof.
That time was 15 years ago.
Both men grew up conservative in Pennsylvania but McClellan “started moving to the left” while attending Franklin & Marshall College in the 1970s. Neither has shifted much on the spectrum since student days.
Despite their political differences, they sometimes collaborate. One such occasion helped establish an enduring ray of media limelight.
It was 2013. Barack Obama was on track to hand out more Medal of Freedom awards than any previous president. “At that point,” McClellan says, “I talked to Kyle and said ‘it might be interesting to look at the history of this award” and its political overtones.
Kopko recruited a friend, Christopher Devine, who now teaches at the University of Dayton, to help him and McClellan co-author a paper.
Jillian Casey and Julia Ward, two E-town class of 2013 graduates who later won Fulbright scholarships, created a data base of the hundreds of Medal of Freedom winners.
And “once you get involved with reporters,” Kopko says, it’s self-perpetuating.
Same idea with Kopko’s and Devine’s 2016 book, “The VP Advantage: How Running Mates Influence Home State Voting in Presidential Elections.” (Spoiler alert: veep candidates aren’t as influential as people think.)
“Every four years we get phone calls” about presidential elections, Kopko says.
Over the past two and a half years, meanwhile, McClellan says, his guest columns for PennLive.com have acquired “a kind of fan club.” Its ranks include both supporters and, in this conservative area, detractors.
McClellan tells how one critic credited him with transforming E-town’s tuition model, claiming “the college had to lower tuition because McClellan teaches there.”
“You provide them with a cathartic experience,” Kopko deadpans to McClellan.
Of course, the boisterous President Trump era has been a boon to more than late-night comedians.
“It’s a column-rich environment,” McClellan says. “The current occupant does things that are…”
“Unorthodox,” Kopko finishes.
It’s a teachable moment for instilling in students the value of civility while sharing political viewpoints.
As a commentator, McClellan says, “you’re toeing the line between opinion writing and scholarship.” As a teacher and a citizen, you’re balancing academic impartiality with personal convictions.
And the professors do feel strongly.
McClellan’s PennLive opinion pieces regularly probe the Trump administration (while equitably noting that “Reds” and “Blues” both have their own manufactured versions of reality).
Kopko, the Republican committeeman, adds that “I have friends on both sides of the aisle.” It’s important to show that to students.
“As social scientists, we approach [public and academic roles] quite differently” than might a typical partisan, Kopko adds. Vetted sources and facts are paramount.
“We see where the evidence leads,” agrees McClellan, who long ago discovered that it may lead to surprising places.
Preparing a paper in the early 1970s, he learned President Richard Nixon was quite sympathetic to American Indian rights. “Here I am,” fresh off the streets protesting Nixon, “and I’m publishing research that bolsters his stature.”
E-town’s political science faculty walks the political tightrope expertly, say Trout, the College Democrats leader, and Kyle Schaeffer, the head of the College Republicans.
Public engagement by teachers does “I think… enhance the reputation and visibility” of the department, says Schaeffer, a graduate student in public policy.
But they won’t hear them dispensing partisan dogma from the lectern, he adds. “I think they understand the line between the classroom and the outside world.”
This equanimity radiates.
Meanwhile, McClellan and Kopko in particular have also become mentors of a sort to Sam Janesch, the local political reporter.
“This is my first full-time job,” says Janesch, who assumed his post in 2015. “I’ll call them up for quick things, even if I don’t quote them on stories, just to check if I’m on the right track.
“They’re both very balanced and always talk about things in context… they’re not just talking about what one party wants.”
That’s one reason government officials are generally less polarized locally than nationally. They’re less fixated on hot-button issues, like racism and border walls. They’re more focused on balancing the municipal budget. Keeping the lights on.
It’s why people of all political stripes should at least sometimes be able to see eye to eye.