History of the Department

The George Washington University was formed as Columbian College on February 9, 1821 by an Act of Congress signed by President James Monroe. The first professor of "political science," as recorded by the University, was William Ruggles, who served as Professor of Political Economy and Civil Polity in 1860-1861.


The Early Years

The Political Science Department had its origins in the Department of Jurisprudence and Diplomacy in 1898, which offered graduate and professional studies in close affiliation with the law school. The first Ph.D. in political science was granted in 1905. Later that year, however, the affiliation with the law school came to a close and the program was reconstituted as the Department of Politics and Diplomacy. Just two years later, with the addition of undergraduate course offerings, the College of Political Sciences replaced the Department of Politics and Diplomacy. It was part of the Faculty of Undergraduate Studies along with the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering and Mechanical Arts, and the Teachers' College.

The mission of the College of Political Sciences was to offer "systematic and scientific instruction in the various branches of the political sciences." The College, in the 1908 GW Bulletin, advertised itself in words that still ring true today: "In Washington are collected the official records of the Nation's history. Here are accumulated vast stores of information concerning the condition of the country and the problems confronting us as a people." The College of Political Sciences in the 1910 GW Bulletin highlighted the unique educational and training opportunities afforded by its location: "As the capital of the nation, Washington furnishes the best, and in many instances the only, opportunity for studying the government in actual operation. Congress, the Supreme Court, the Executive Departments, and the government of the District of Columbia afford object lessons for the study of political science. Such an atmosphere for the student of the political sciences can be found nowhere else."


Department Affiliates with Columbian College and School of Government

Following a financial crisis in 1913, the College of Political Sciences was incorporated into the Columbian College (of Arts and Sciences). The Political Science Department in 1914 employed three faculty members: Charles Herbert Stockton (Chair), Leslie Cleveland McNemar, and Oscan Phelps Austin. The faculty offered 14 courses, ranging from Elements of Political Science and American Government to European Governments and Principles of International Law. The Department's objective was to train students for "consular and diplomatic positions and for the public service of the United States, while imparting that general culture and equipment necessary for efficient citizenship and the intelligent grasp of public questions."

Political science faculty became members of a second school in 1928 when the University created the School of Government. This newly constituted school sought to prepare men and women for public service. Political science courses were a required component of the curriculum in two schools, the Columbian College and the School of Government, and the five political science faculty members were included among the faculty in both schools.


Department Expansion

The Department in the following decades experienced exceptional growth in two periods. The first period of expansion occurred following World War II when the Department doubled from six faculty members in the 1944-1945 school year to 12 in the 1949-1950 school year. The second period of expansion took place in the 1960s. This coincided with developments in what was known as the School of Government. New units were created that carried faculty lines; for instance the Institute for Sino-Soviet Studies came into existence in 1961. Later in the decade, greater emphasis was given to public and international affairs by separating the School of Public and International Affairs from the old School of Government, a division that also spawned what is now the School of Business. By the end of the decade, the political science Department benefitted from these developments, growing to 24 faculty members.


Changing Course

Members of the Political Science Department in the 1980s began serious discussions about a puzzle of long standing. Why, in spite of the obvious advantages associated with being located in the nation's capital, acknowledged from the founding of the Department, was there no premier Political Science Department in the Washington, DC area? The conclusion was an ironic one: the potential advantages of a Washington location heralded since the early-1900s could be a liability as well. Local political science departments had traded too heavily and too clumsily on their Washington location. Location and access ("Just blocks from the White House and State Department!") had served as replacements for a top-notch faculty, curriculum, and research organization. The appeal of living and working in Washington was sufficient to attract a good faculty. Many of the good faculty members who did come found their attention drawn into important and exciting policy arenas where the standards for research and publication differed from those that defined excellence in the community of scholars.

The faculty concluded that there was a window of opportunity open to the local department for distinguishing itself by pursuing academic excellence and scholarly research - that would set itself apart as a top-notch political science department in Washington, but not of Washington. That did not mean ignoring our setting; there is no question that Washington provides a rich research setting, and it made no sense to build a department that could just as easily have been in Illinois, Iowa, or Michigan. What it meant, we thought, was competing head-to-head with the best departments and then using the Washington location as the icing on the cake - the added advantage that would attract the best faculty and students when all things were taken into account.

The opportunity came when, in 1990, the administration decided that the Department should recruit a new chair from outside the university. We were fortunate to attract a chair, Lee Sigelman, who had an unsurpassed personal record of scholarly productivity and a clear idea of what was required to build a research conducive environment. New faculty members were aggressively recruited and, once hired, were encouraged to focus on their research and publication. An atmosphere of collegiality was nurtured, and collaboration was encouraged. A haphazard pattern of publication was replaced by a more focused effort at placing works in the top journals and with high quality academic presses.


Pursuing Academic Excellence

These and other efforts bore fruit. This evidence comes in several forms. One ranking of political science departments based upon faculty publications in the 64 "main" journals in the field placed us at 19th overall given the absolute number of published articles from 1997 to 2002, while our impact rank (based on the quality of journals in which we published) was 18th. Further evidence comes from a survey by a team of international relations scholars at the College of William and Mary. Their ratings, based on responses from more than a thousand faculty members, placed University Professor James Rosenau 19th and Martha Finnemore 23rd among scholars having the greatest impact on the study of international relations over the last 20 years, and Finnemore ranked 4th among scholars seen as doing the most interesting work in recent years as well as 11th among scholars whose work influences the research of international relations scholars. A 2001 analysis ranked the Department 11th nationally for the quality of incoming faculty. The designation of Lee Sigelman as editor of the American Political Science Review, the "flagship" research journal of the discipline, also indicated the respect that the Department has achieved within the political science profession, and has greatly increased the visibility of the Department nationally and internationally. Evidence of our reputation locally comes from The Hill (a widely-read Capitol Hill newspaper), which placed GW among the top political science graduate programs in the country and named Sarah Binder a "Top Congressional Scholar."

The mission of the Department of Political Science today builds on its century-old objectives. We seek to promote the creation, dissemination, and appropriate application of knowledge about political behavior and governance. To accomplish this goal by maintaining excellence in research and scholarship, training graduate students for productive careers in teaching, research, and public life, providing undergraduates with the knowledge and analytical tools that will enable them to make informed and critical judgments about political and policy issues, and to communicate such judgments clearly and convincingly, and contributing service through expertise to the profession, university, and community.

Columbian College building, c.1850

Columbian College building, c.1850

University Building, c.1900

University Building, c.1900

Columbian University Library, 1892

Columbian University Library, 1892

Lynda Bird Johnson (daughter of  President Johnson) with Oswold Colclough outside the School of Government, 1964
Lynda Bird Johnson (daughter of 
President Johnson) with Oswald
Colclough outside the School of
Government, 1964