Wendy Schiller, professor of political science, professor of international and public affairs and director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, was recently been named the recipient of the Barbara Sinclair Lecture Award by the American Political Science Association.
The Barbara Sinclair Award is given to scholars who “have made outstanding contributions to our collective understanding of Congress, while also demonstrating their commitment to students and helping the public make better sense of politics,” wrote David Barker, co-chair of the award committee and political science professor at American University in an email to The Herald.
“We gather nominations from fellow scholars all over the country, and make a determination,” Barker wrote, adding that the award is highly competitive.
Noting Schiller’s research on the U.S. Congress, Barker highlighted her book, “Electing the Senate: Indirect Democracy before the Seventeenth Amendment.”
“Using an original data set … that includes all roll call votes cast by state legislators for U.S. senators from 1871 to 1913 and all state legislators who served during this time, ‘Electing the Senate’ is the definitive account of this important period and the development of representative government in the United States,” Barker wrote.
Schiller studied politics as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and proceeded to work as a legislative assistant in the U.S. Senate for Daniel P. Moynihan, a senator from New York. She then worked for Governor Mario M. Cuomo as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. for the State of New York. Schiller earned her PhD from the University of Rochester and came to the University in 1994 after completing fellowships at the Brookings Institution and Princeton.
“It was a nice confluence of events that I could go and work on Capitol Hill and work in the House and Senate, and then go to graduate school and study it from the outside,” Schiller said.
Her interest in congressional affairs has been the focus point of Schiller’s political science career. “Congress is one of the world’s most long-standing organizations … it shows us what kinds of representation seems to work in terms of giving voice to people over their federal government and what kinds of representation may not work,” Schiller said.
Schiller highlighted the uniqueness of the present-day makeup of Congress, because its rules and procedures were established at a time when women, Black Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and other historically marginalized groups were disenfranchised and thus had minimal representation in the government.
“It’s fascinating to study not only the Congress now but the Congress one hundred years ago,” Schiller said, as this study teaches how political representation changes, or does not change, to better reflect the population.
Schiller pointed out how when she first started working in the Senate in 1986, there were only two women senators. Currently, there are 24 women out of 100 total senators, a figure that is still significantly under-representative considering that women make up roughly 51% of the national population.
The changing demographics of the Congress today bring “another dimension to study Congress that I didn’t have 30 years ago, thinking about gender, thinking about race, ethnicity, certainly sexual identity,” Schiller added.
Throughout her time in the political sphere, Schiller has always looked to Barbara Sinclair, a distinguished congressional expert and scholar of political science, as a role model.
“She was … one of the few women in political science studying Congress at all,” Schiller said. As one of the pioneers of using quantitative statistical methods in her work, it was very difficult for Sinclair, being a woman in the 1970s, to establish herself in the profession, Schiller added.
“My first year of graduate school was the year she wrote this book that became really famous called ‘The Transformation of the U.S. Senate,’ and I literally thought, ‘I want to be her,’” Schiller said. “It’s a great honor being given this award because she really paved the way.”
Eric Patashnik, professor of public policy and professor of political science, succeeded Schiller as chair of the political science department this year. Schiller was chair of the department from 2015 to 2021.
“Professor Schiller was an outstanding chair of the political science department for six years; she brought tremendous energy, creativity, ambition and dedication to the department,” Patashnik said. “The department grew significantly under her leadership. We hired a number of new faculty, made significant improvements to both graduate and undergraduate teaching and the department’s national reputation climbed. It is a privilege for me to follow her as chair because she accomplished so much during her tenure.”
Patashnik described Schiller as “one of the nation’s most distinguished scholars of Congress, of American political history and democracy,” adding that she is renowned for her expertise on the U.S. Senate.
He also praised Schiller for her achievements in the realms of legislative politics and the U.S. Congress, saying, “I can’t think of anyone who is a more deserving recipient of this award.”
Patashnik, who was a colleague of Sinclair’s for several years at the University of California at Los Angeles, also emphasized the similarities between Sinclair’s career trajectory and Schiller’s.
“Barbara Sinclair was a pioneer in legislative studies who was tremendously effective not only in producing leading works of scholarship but also at communicating the findings of political science research to the larger public, and Professor Schiller’s own career has very much followed in that same tradition,” Patashnik said.
Above all, the part of her profession that Schiller enjoys the most is the daily interactions she has with students. She described teaching, listening to and being a mentor to students as “by far the most satisfying part of this job.” Her hope is to generate enthusiasm among the younger generations for political science and to encourage them to become engaged with the dynamics and processes of Congress.
“As an academic, you always want not just your ideas about things to be published and recognized, but you want them to germinate,” Schiller said, “you want them to sprout new avenues of research or new ideas or new members of Congress.”