Alan Rosenthal—One of a Kind
Students and Politicians—He Enjoyed Them All
By Ruth B. Mandel, Professor and Director, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.
Powerful expressions of admiration, respect, grief and loss poured into the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University as word spread of Alan Rosenthal’s death in July. It wasn’t surprising to hear from devoted former students and academic colleagues—for almost a half century Alan was a highly productive, successful university professor.
What was unexpected and unique was the stream of accolades from current and former elected officials and their staffs, lobbyists and leaders of public interest groups. Politicians and professors commonly keep a distance, regarding each other warily. Their styles and the pace of their lives, the ways they think and speak, how they measure success or experience professional failure—their worlds could hardly be less alike. But over a long and heralded career, Alan Rosenthal had breached the divide, winning respect and affection from both sides of the political/professorial divide. An extraordinary achievement!
Unabashedly, he returned the warmth. Rarely did a day go by when he was not in his office with his door wide open, talking loudly and laughing affectionately with a student from one of Eagleton’s graduate or undergraduate programs, or in a long, animated telephone conversation with a Midwestern legislator, a former governor or senator, a capitol lobbyist or the legislative staff director in a state far away.
Students and politicians—he enjoyed them all, and they enjoyed him.
Since his death, much attention has been paid to Alan’s advocacy of reforms to strengthen and professionalize state legislatures. While true, that focus doesn’t capture his unique professional perspective and approach, which was that of an academic, a one-of-a-kind academic at that. Alan’s paycheck for almost 50 years was issued by a university—Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
He moved up the academic ranks from assistant to associate to full professor and later to professor II, the rank accorded the most distinguished faculty members. Through all his years at Rutgers, 1966 to 2013, he was based at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, the university’s unit that links the study with the practice of American politics—not an ivory tower, but a hands-on research and education center that values and promotes interaction with the people and institutions under study.
This environment suited Alan very well. Over the years, he was proud of the airline miles he racked up visiting state capitols to hang out with their denizens. He was fond of describing his job as easy because it paid him to do what he liked, when and how he liked to do it. That meant meeting with elected representatives, their staffs and the lobbyists who populate their corridors.
The thousands of notes he took on 4-by-6 cards were organized into the piles that became the chapters that turned into the many books he wrote and edited. Among his best-known titles: Legislative Life, Engines of Democracy, Heavy Lifting, The Decline of Representative Democracy and The Best Job in Politics (this last book focusing on governors).
In the classroom, Alan emphasized the process of legislating and the institution of the legislature as he had come to know them first-hand. He invited guest speakers to class, practitioners whom he knew personally from years on the legislative trail. He taught students to understand and respect how the democratic system works, giving them the opportunity to examine it close up and messy.
Assigning readings from his own books, he relied less on theoretical and methodological scholarly debates than is typical in university courses. While he himself read everything, kept up with the field and admired good scholarship, the empirical data he shared with students most often came from decades of direct observation and his deep knowledge from being on the ground.
In current parlance for war correspondents, one could say Alan was embedded with the troops, writing about what he saw at the legislative frontlines. He had little patience for armchair generals who hadn’t met the troops or seen the action up close. Over the years, Alan worked with legislatures in 35 states and played a major role in helping to develop the National Conference of State Legislatures and other legislative forums. He spoke at innumerable NCSL national and regional meetings, as well as at meetings of The Council of State Governments and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. Alan repeatedly opened legislative orientation sessions, trained newly elected lawmakers and staff, consulted with leaders about ethics and campaign finance, advised legislators about improving policymaking processes in their states and taught partisan staff how to gather and analyze information for lawmakers.
He was learning about government even as he taught its practitioners to hone their craft. A colleague and I were fond of commenting that traveling with Alan to a gathering of state legislators was like accompanying Elvis on tour. In the territory he had staked out at the intersection of academe and politics, he was indeed a rock star.
The varied appreciations of Alan’s life and career bring into sharp focus how unusual he was as a professor of political science. He stayed on his own course, swimming against a strong tide in his field—the trend toward scholarship based on metrics, dependent on careful measurement and quantitative analysis.
One pictures a faculty member at a computer, designing sophisticated methodologies to study and analyze political trends and patterns, not one jotting down notes while perched in a van accompanying a couple of Oklahoma legislators to observe a cow chip pitching contest in Beaver, or visiting a sausage factory to discover whether making laws and making sausage really were comparably distasteful processes.
Alan thought of his immersion approach—direct contact with the people and institutions he studied—as “soaking and poking,” the descriptor associated with the University of Rochester’s professor Richard Fenno, another venerable political scientist who danced to his own music in studying Congress.
Alan didn’t just study people in the world of politics—he actually enjoyed hanging out with them. He kept a low profile, laughing at anyone who accused him of trying to change the world; he had little patience for idealists and ideologues, and he regularly rebutted my insistence that our government would be improved by the inclusion of more women. (In fact, he had little patience for identity politics of any kind.) But in developing strategies to make a once-weak branch of government stronger and more effective, he was in fact altering institutions every day.
Today’s professors of political science spend much of their time training graduate students to follow in their footsteps as researchers and teachers, speaking the current jargon of the academy. Alan’s former graduate students are more likely to turn up as directors of legislative staffs, lobbyists or attorneys specializing in government affairs—hands-on political participants. I would often query him about where we might find the small cadre of young scholars whose interests dovetailed with his, the up-and-coming generation who might be invited to sit at his feet and prepare to take up where he left off. While I lamented, he simply acknowledged that the current fashions are different. Today, precious few fledgling political scientists—especially those with ambitions to be hired and tenured at research universities—would opt for Alan’s approach.
As it turned out, the Eagleton Institute of Politics, where Alan spent almost 50 years, including 20 as its director, was the perfect place for him. A graduate of elite institutions (Harvard and Princeton), he built his illustrious career at a state university. Unlike his colleagues who speak largely to one another, he thrived as a different kind of academic, a student not so much of political science as of politics. Neither legislatures nor scholars are likely to find another like him.
It’s a simple declaration, but no exaggeration: Alan was one of a kind.