Looking Back at 100 Years of Political Science

The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences department celebrates its centennial anniversary this year.

100 Years Political Science
November 20, 2013

In 1913, the George Washington University Political Science Department consisted of just three faculty members who taught 14 courses.

Today, the political science program is one of the largest within the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, serving more than 700 undergraduate students, 100 graduate students and 49 full-time faculty members. Its alumni include college presidents, members of Congress—including Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., B.A. ’77—federal and state judges and professionals in law, business and research.

The department celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. During Alumni Weekend in September, graduates and faculty from across the decades joined the current department community to remember the program’s achievements in the last century.

"People were actively engaged in various aspects of government and policy, and the department was known for its professional- and Washington-oriented teaching. "
- Chris Deering

The origins of political science at the university can be traced back to the Department of Jurisprudence and Diplomacy, which launched in 1898. The department offered graduate and professional studies affiliated with the law school. In 1907, the department added undergraduate coursework, creating the College of Political Sciences. Columbian College incorporated the program as a department in 1913.

Following World War II, the department doubled from six faculty members in 1944 to 12 in 1949. The department witnessed another growth spurt in the 1960s: A university-wide expansion added 24 full-time political science faculty members.

When Christopher Deering, professor of political science and former department chair, arrived in 1978, the department had grown—but it was still half the size it is today. Dr. Deering said the department was always strong in area studies, comparative politics and international relations, a fact that remains true now.

“People were actively engaged in various aspects of government and policy, and the department was known for its professional- and Washington-oriented teaching. That changed in the ’90s, when we reoriented the department to have an even greater focus on research as well as Washington,” Dr. Deering said.

Lee Sigelman, who served as chair in the early 1990s, built upon the solid foundation of the department, making it into a widely respected research institution. Dr. Sigelman was a well-known author who edited the American Political Science Review during his tenure as chair. He came to GW focused on scholarship and pushed to attract the best in the field.

Forrest Maltzman, senior vice provost for academic affairs and planning, was Dr. Sigelman’s first faculty hire. He remembered being drawn to Dr. Sigelman’s leadership and goals for the department.

“Lee’s vision was of a research-oriented department built on the pillars of high standards, faculty-student engagement in the research enterprise, collegiality and an understanding that the field itself was pluralistic. Coming to GW was an easy choice because of Lee’s compelling vision,” Dr. Maltzman said.

Paul Wahlbeck, professor of political science and current department chair, added that Dr. Sigelman’s encouraged faculty to pursue research and publication opportunities. 

“He was a major figure in encouraging faculty to seek out publication in the very best outlets the field has to offer,” Dr. Wahlbeck said. “The department’s reputation grew with the success of the faculty he brought, and that continues today.”

The department’s professors currently include Sarah Binder, a top congressional scholar; John Sides, the founder of the political science blog “The Monkey Cage,” which was recently acquired by the Washington Post; and Martha Finnemore, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“Our students are preparing their own career path, and I look forward to hearing their success stories in the years ahead.”  
-Paul Wahlbeck

Students in the department benefit from faculty connections to government agencies, nonprofit institutions and other organizations. They also work on projects with real-world applications in the government, legal and political sector.

“What has stood out the most is the wide range of classes allowing me to explore many different subfields of political science, as well as the passion for the subject by the professors,” said junior Matthew Gerstenberg.

As it marks its centennial, political science at GW celebrates the achievements of faculty, students and graduates of its programs.  

“We are proud of the fact that our department has touched the lives of thousands of alumni over the years and of the diverse contributions they have made to their communities,” Dr. Wahlbeck said. “Our students are preparing their own career path, and I look forward to hearing their success stories in the years ahead.”