Tag Archives: Political Science

Student Urges Action on Nuclear Sub Proliferation

nate_sans_r-lNate Sans ’14 thinks the U.S. Navy should redesign its nuclear submarines. And his opinion earned an impressive audience last month when an essay he wrote was published in the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.” While interning this summer at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Sans won the Bulletin’s monthly contest for young people called “Voices of Tomorrow.”

“I think what they’re trying to do is figure out what people my age are thinking about,” said Sans. ”I can’t tell you how many times I heard at CNS that the perspective of younger people is particularly important to them. They came into the business in the cold war, and the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up during the cold war is valuable to them.”

A political science major with a minor in Russian, Sans argued in his essay that the kind of technology used in American nuclear submarines, which use highly enriched uranium, could offer countries like Iran a “back door” route to building nuclear weapons. He notes that a loophole in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allows military nuclear reactors like those on submarines to bypass guidelines that civilian reactors must follow.

“What I was pushing at was, let’s reconsider this: maybe the priority of nonproliferation could supersede the priority of having the best submarines. Maybe we can still have a satisfactory submarine and also do work on this nonproliferation priority.”

Sans, who has a strong interest in national security and international studies, happened on the topic while doing research for CNS. ”They were really good about offering us free rein on what we wanted to work on,” he said. “They had a bunch of projects and we could pick and choose based on what we thought was interesting.”

Sans landed the CNS internship as a result of his semester at the Monterey Institute of International Studies last spring. He happened to ask his Russian politics professor for suggestions about internships the day before the CNS deadline. She suggested he hurry up and apply.

He says the Monterey experience was an ideal complement to his Middlebury studies, in part because of the diversity of his classmates, many of whom had worked in fields he cares about. He also says he left Monterey with a better understanding of how foreign policy happens in the massive U.S. government bureaucracy. “You get a good understanding of who the players are and what they do, which helped me figure out what interested me and narrowed my focus.

Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of CNS, says an experience like this can really pay off for students. “The summer fellowship provided Nate a chance to shine and to share his passion and expertise with his peers, many from other top schools,” said Wolfsthal. “His writing and participation were terrific and we’d welcome more Middlebury students for the fellowship and course work in the future.”

As far as submarines are concerned, Sans says he’s always been fascinated with them, but he’s not about to become a submariner. He’s more interested in the nonproliferation policy implications and how they’ll play out politically. ”Any sort of contribution I made to the debate was that the administration could do more.”

Class Assignment: Give Away $100,000

How hard could it be to give away $100,000? Just write the check, make someone’s day, smiles all around.

Of course, it’s not that simple. At least not if you’re weighing the countless factors philanthropists must consider, which is what a group of 25 Middlebury students did during a new J-term course titled “Philanthropy: Ethics and Practice.”

The money was real — $100,000 from the Texas-based Once Upon A Time Foundation, which has made similar grants to several colleges and universities to support the study of philanthropic giving. The class’s charge was to research nonprofit organizations that interested them, and allocate the funds by the end of the course.

Sarah Stroup, assistant professor of political science guides a class dicsussion.

Sarah Stroup, assistant professor of political science, guides a class discussion.

A faculty team of political scientist Sarah Stroup and philosophy professor Steven Viner served as facilitators, crafting the course to blend the mechanics of philanthropic giving with the ethical decision-making tools necessary for such important choices.

For the first two weeks, students delved into the intricacies of nonprofits and philanthropy. They split into five groups and compiled lists of possible organizations to support, then spent a week immersed in research on their prospective grantees, including phone conversations, meetings, and tours. They narrowed the field significantly with each group considering one to three potential organizations.

Sitting with Stroup and Viner, one student group described how they’d honed their list down to one local social services group — the Addison County Parent Child Center. They liked supporting an organization in the local college community and were impressed with the center’s results in reducing teen pregnancy.  But will it persuade their classmates?

Students listened to detailed briefing papers from their classmates on each of the charities considered for grants.

Students listened to detailed briefing papers from their classmates on each of the charities considered for grants.

“I feel like in order for them to keep providing help and education on a case-by-case basis, we need to address the issues of staffing,” said Luke Martinez ‘14. Martinez noted that most of the center’s funding comes mostly from Medicaid and the state, but those sources seem continually at risk as the country digs out of recession.

“That won’t be sexy to present in front of the class, but it’s the fact of the matter,” added fellow group member Emmy Masur ‘13.

Week four marked a transition to the hard work of narrowing the list even further in preparation to make awards. To help create a baseline of shared information about the charities, each student group presented a briefing paper that included background, structures and strategies, financial information, oversight and monitoring, evidence of impact, and reasons why to support them.

They narrowed the field to four finalists: Gardens for Health International, which fights malnutrition; Grassroot Soccer, which works to reduce HIV infection through education; and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI), which reduces parasitic worm infections in Africa, and the local Addison County Parent Child Center.

The class took numerous hand votes to narrow down the finalists, but ultimately voted on paper to reach consensus.

The class took numerous hand votes to narrow down the finalists, but struggled to reach consensus.

But along with a smaller field comes stronger advocacy from the student groups. When students had a chance to ask each other for additional information, there were sometimes testy exchanges as students slipped into the role of advocates. They all knew what was on the line for their charity and wanted to make a compelling case.

“I think we expected this,” said Stroup, “that as the decision moment came closer, students were not thinking about these questions in abstract terms. They were thinking about them in the particular context of the charities that they felt passionately drawn to.”

On the last day of class, the moment of truth arrives, when the class must decide — together — how they’ll parcel out the money. Everyone knows how much research and emotion the other teams have invested, but they really want their group to come out ahead.

Stroup and Viner, now in full facilitator mode, guide the students into a decision process that’s fair and logical. Viner has suggested a kind of “Robert’s Rules” system to keep the class on track. Trying to narrow the decision further, the class takes a series of votes: how many charities to fund, which are your preferred charities, if we vote for only three, what would they be, and so on.

Ian Stewart ’14 (center) broke through the stalemate by suggesting a paper vote.

Ian Stewart ’14 (center) broke through the stalemate by suggesting a paper vote.

Three solid hours of deliberation yields a stalemate, and a new group dynamic. Quite simply, it is difficult to sit in a circle of friends and peers, and tell them you don’t want to support their cause. Ian Stewart ‘14 proposes a solution that breaks the log jam: Each member of the class write on a piece of paper how much money they would allocate to each of the four groups and then tally the class average for each. It’s an imperfect solution — some groups get more, some less — but it nicely illustrates the need for compromise and progress. Gardens for Health and SCI end up with $35,000 each, while Grassroot Soccer and the Parent Child Center end up with $15,000 each.

With a decision finally made, the mood turned from tension to joy, exuberance, and relief. And despite all the wrangling that came before, the class seems satisfied that the will of the group was reflected in their decision.

Viner applauded the students’ efforts, especially their perseverance when it might have been easier to split the money evenly and call it a day. “That’s a sort of life lesson about us learning how to do good with our money,” he said. “These are difficult decisions, but there’s also an undercurrent of another sort of problem that arose, which is coordinating with others to come to a decision about how our projects will clash with, and come into tension with, other people’s projects even when they’re both good projects.”

“Our class introduced students to both ‘what is’ in the American nonprofit sector as well as to perhaps ‘what should be’ in terms of our responsibilities to others,” said Stroup, “and we hope that the conversations that we began over J-term continue as students grow as citizens and leaders.”

Professor Pundits: VICTORY…for Political Scientists

It’s all about the data. Wrapping up their year-long series of commentaries about the presidential election, Middlebury’s Professor Pundits Matt Dickinson and Bert Johnson note that scientific forecasting models really do work to predict election results. Hear what the pundits have to say in their final commentary on the 2012 election.

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Professor Pundits: The Expectations Game

We’re almost to election day. What could happen in the last few days to significantly change the trajectory of the race? Well, historically, not much. But then again, the unexpected doesn’t usually give much notice. Middlebury “Professor Pundits” Bert Johnson and Matt Dickinson fill us in on expectations, the electoral college, and what to look for on election night in their final pre-election installment.

Matt and Bert will host an election-night gathering at the Grille in McCullough Student Center. Please join them if you’re in town, or follow their live-blogging and tweets. On Twitter, Matt is @Mattdickinson44 and Bert is @bnjohns.

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Professor Pundits: Will Women Decide the Presidential Race?

According to the latest polls, the presidential race is tightening and the gender gap is closing. Obama has held a strong lead among women voters, but that lead seems to be vanishing, and the reasons might surprise you. Middlebury professors Matt Dickinson and Bert Johnson discuss these issues, the electoral map and advertising strategy in the final weeks of the campaign. If you have questions about the presidential campaign, email Matt and Bert at pundits@middlebury.edu.

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Professor Pundits: Who’s Ahead? It’s Debatable.

After weeks of build up, the first of three presidential debates is behind us. Who won? Both sides seem to think Mitt Romney clinched the debate. Will that give his campaign a boost? And why is it that the polls have showed Obama steadily inching ahead of Romney, yet political scientists consider the race a dead heat? Professor Pundits Matt Dickinson and Bert Johnson talk debates, ad strategy, and many other factors that will impact the election in these final weeks. If you have questions about the presidential campaign for the pundits, email them to pundits@middlebury.edu.


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Professor Pundits: Things That Go Bump…Or Not

As political convention season comes to a close, presidential debate season begins. So, did either candidate get a “bump” from the conventions? In their newest installment, professor pundits Matt Dickinson and Bert Johnson say the whole idea of a bounce in the polls from the conventions may be a thing of the past. According to the pundits, several factors, including fragmented media coverage, are responsible for this trend. See what Matt and Bert have to say in the video below, and please send any presidential election-related questions to pundits@middlebury.edu.

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