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Grad School Dean Paula McClain discusses her election to helm of top political science association

Dr. Paula McClain will serve as president-elect of the American Political Science Association (APSA) for a year in 2018-2019 before taking the role of president. McClain currently serves as the dean of the Duke Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education, and is a professor of political science and public policy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: To begin, what does it mean to you as an academic to be elected to head up your field’s professional organization?

Paula McClain: It is something I could not have imagined, because it does really represent the supreme recognition by the colleagues in your field and your standing as a scholar. Your contributions to the discipline and everything you’ve done in your career gets wrapped up in becoming president of our 115-year old professional association. It’s just very humbling and thrilling at the same time. 

TC: You’re the fourth Duke professor to hold the position in that 115-year history. What does that mean to you?

PM: It’s amazing, because the first one was Taylor Cole in 1958 to 1959, then the next one was Robert Keohane in 1999 to 2000. Then John Aldrich was 2013 to 2014. I think the fact that John and I are so close to each other in terms of time indicates where Duke Political Science stands relative to the broader discipline—that the department and scholars in that department have standing.

TC: What are your goals for the role?

PM: There are a couple of things. For me, I bring to the APSA my longstanding commitment to diversifying the discipline. For example, I’m in the area of race, ethnicity and politics, and I have been part of a group of scholars who have pushed that particular subfield into the main stream of the discipline. That area of research reveals much about the historical and current environment of politics of the United States.

With my commitment to diversifying the discipline, I have directed the APSA’s program, the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute, for the last 20 years. Ralph Bunche was the first Black American to get a Ph.D. in political science in 1934 from Harvard. He was the first Black president of the American Political Science Association in 1955, which was after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. I feel that I have an intellectual connection to Bunche because I was taught by professors that were taught by Bunche. 

I feel that as political scientists we have to be catholic in our methodological approaches, meaning that I don’t think the discipline needs to be privileging one methodological approach over another. When we do that, we devalue scholars’ methods that may be different from what people view as a primary method of the discipline, and I just think that approach isn’t healthy, and it doesn’t lead to a vibrancy in the field of political science. So scholars who do qualitative research, field research, quantitative research and form models all have a place in the field of political science.

TC: Your book, "Can We All Get Along," just published its seventh edition in 2017, and was updated to include material about the Dakota Pipeline Access protest movement and President Barack Obama’s second term. If you were to update it again, what topics and events that have arisen between then and now do you think would be most relevant to that work?

PM: There will be an 8th edition, because the book really still has filled a void in the political science discipline and so was actually quite popular. One of the things I think will be in the eighth edition is the continued failings of race. We see this in the Trump administration when all those people claimed when President Obama was elected that the United States had moved to a post-racial society; clearly it wasn’t true at that point and clearly it is not true now. 

What happens is that we continue to kind of pick at the scab and the wounds of racism, not just from the beginning of the United States but from colonial times. I think it’s more heightened now than we have seen it in a good long time, like Nixon’s Southern Strategy and another period. It’s pretty salient at this point in time.

TC: This point in history is considered to be a very politically divisive time in America. What does it mean to be set to step into a leadership position for a political science scholars organization when politics is so divided?

PM: It makes it very challenging, because it is not just the political environment externally, but in any professional organization the #MeToo movement is something that is part of the discipline. My presidential year will be the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. In the area of women in politics, that becomes an important touchstone. 

But there are just a lot of issues in society that you find reflected in professional associations. There is no polyana on my part that this is going to be just an honorific kind of thing. There is a lot of work that the discipline has to do.

TC: How do you plan to balance being dean of Duke’s Graduate School with being the president of your discipline’s professional association?

PM: It’s not easy, but I’m also a mother, a grandmother, and a wife. Most of my career, I’ve had to balance a number of things. For me, I’ve been able to kind of compartmentalize at certain points during the day or during a particular period. I am fortunate that I have had a very supportive spouse so that it is like a partnership and not everything with our daughters or with our grandsons is my responsibility. It’s a joint responsibility.

This will be the first time I’ve had to balance my administrative role as Dean of the Graduate School with being president of my professional organization, but I am up to the challenge and I am thrilled by the opportunity to lead my discipline and to continue to lead the Graduate School. So I’ll compartmentalize, like I have all along in my career.

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