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reed magazine logoWinter 2009

It was the academic equivalent of a start-up company. “At first,” Gronke says, “all we had was a business card, a letterhead, and a whole lot of chutzpah.” But Gronke, and the Reed students who assist him, picked the right subject at an auspicious moment. By the 2004 election, early voting was a significant strategic factor. EVIC, which had gotten some early funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York, began to attract serious outside support, particularly in the form of six-figure grants from Pew, part of the charity’s larger effort to improve America’s electoral system. As the 2008 campaign ran its course, it became clear that the question of when voters would turn out had become just as pivotal as that of whether they would turn out at all.

“This year, you had enough overlap between early-voting states and battlegrounds, and the candidates were starkly different enough, that you could really start to draw some conclusions,” Gronke says. For example, on Election Day, EVIC research director James Hicks ’08, a Reed political science graduate, was able to parse data to scrutinize media reports of a surge of early-voting young people in Florida. And in the waning days of the campaign, as the center’s website tracked phenomena such as the enormous early African-American turnout in the South, Gronke’s name popped up in the media on a daily basis.

For an academic, a chat with the press can be a fraught experience, as delicately constructed research melts away in a wash of blunt-instrument sound bites. Gronke, a blue-eyed man with a lean runner’s build whose manner may evoke a skilled campaign operative—perhaps a fast-talking West Wing character—more than a tweedy academic, says that over the years he’s adjusted.

“I would say you have to have a certain talent for it, but more importantly you have to have the willingness to do it,” he says. “You need to shave away nuances, and be willing to make a statement that has a degree of certainty. You have to be able to take what you know about the data and the philosophical issues, and make a gut-level statement about what you think. I don’t give reporters all the details. I give them similes and metaphors. If I’m talking to someone from the Midwest, it’s always the ‘100-year flood’ of turn-out, you know?”

All the effort—the research, and the media exposure it brings—pays off in a couple ways. For one, EVIC provides an excellent, real-world lab for Reed students, one where they grapple with live data and one of the country’s most critical public-policy questions. “Usually, social sciences students don’t get into the lab until their junior year,” Gronke says. “They don’t work with real data until they do their theses. By contrast, we’re seeing students go to grad school with two, three, and four publications already in hand.”

Then, there are Gronke’s own policy concerns. He believes the rise of early voting, along with ongoing attention to the electoral system’s various systemic woes, presents an opportunity to re-engineer a fundamental mechanism of democracy. His work at EVIC gives him both a media platform and the credibility with policy­makers to push for change. When Gronke talks about improving voter registration or ensuring that all voters have equal access to early voting facilities, whether they live in rich precincts or poor precincts, he knows reporters and politicians will pay attention.

“I’ve been drawn into a policy-reform effort, and that doesn’t end with the election,” he says. “Ohio is talking about a top-to-bottom election reform. I’ve talked to Maryland, I’ve talked to New York. I expect to do more of that in the next couple of months.”

It all adds up to an unusual role—of balancing academia and teaching with policy reform efforts—and Gronke appreciates its distinctiveness. “I think I have something to contribute at Reed and something to contribute on the policy side,” he says. “The Reed environment is really what makes this possible.”

Scholarship, Teaching, and the Fourth Estate

So you’re living a scholarly life, like Peter O’Toole in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, when an international news story breaks wide open and reporters come crashing into your office like a troupe of exuberant actresses, demanding instant soundbites to preposterous questions. This is the situation several Reed professors have found themselves facing over the past year.

Academic research serves an important role in the scholarship of professors and their students. Research keeps professors’ knowledge current in their field, leads to new areas of exploration, and prompts lively classroom discussions. And according to the Reed faculty handbook, scholarship is one of the three most important criteria by which professors are evaluated. (In descending order of importance, those criteria are effectiveness of teaching, scholarship, and service to the Reed community.)

Reed professors who have recently been quoted in the media (or sought after as lecturers) include:

  • Darius Rejali, political science: waterboarding, torture scandals at Abu Ghraib and the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp.
  • Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, religion: the controversy over Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West, a DVD inserted in several American newspapers, including the Oregonian.
  • Kimberly Clausing, economics: the economic downturn.
  • Nigel Nicholson, classics: athletics in the ancient world, the Olympics.
  • Paul A. Silverstein, anthropology: piracy and terrorism on the North African frontier.
reed magazine logoWinter 2009