The University of Minnesota is home to one of the first political science departments in the United States: the Department of Political Science, founded in 1879, is almost as old as the University itself. Early courses were taught in civil government, focusing on chapters from de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (a text still taught today). The main lecturer for the department was the President of the University, William Watts Folwell. He emphasized the importance of a well-rounded education, encouraging students to take courses in other social sciences and economics. Under his leadership, the Department of Political Science fully embraced the core values of the liberal arts. He continued to lead and expand the department until his retirement in 1907.
Development in the 20th Century
As early as 1906, the department was teaching courses in Latin American government and relations, police power, and legislative power. The Department of Political Science initially also encompassed Economics; while the two departments split in 1913, they continued to support one another with cross-listed courses in political economy. The department started offering honors programs as early as 1928, long before the University instituted its own honors programs.
Interdepartmental collaboration was an integral part of the University and the Department of Political Science throughout World War I and World War II. Students could take courses in modern history, economics, political psychology, and municipal engineering, giving them a deeper understanding of the applications of political science. During this same time period, the department structured its course offerings with introductory courses offered in law, American government, and comparative government. These courses led to specialized upper division courses at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
Continuing the department's long tradition of listening to its students, student evaluations of instructors and courses were introduced in the 1960s, and courses and seminars were added in response to student preferences. The department sponsored "teach-ins" during the 1960s and 1970s to discuss Southeast Asia and American foreign and defense policy - to educate students on the world around them as new political situations were unfolding. And the department successfully fought to start an internship program for undergraduates at the Minnesota State Senate: the program began in the late 1960s, and still exists today.
Also during this time period, the graduate program was reshaped to become a national leader. A rich array of seminars has been offered by the graduate program, including those in American politics, comparative politics, international relations, political theory, political economy, political psychology, human rights, and political methodology.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a recommitment to interdisciplinary instruction within the department: faculty taught interdisciplinary courses in a variety of fields such as women’s studies, African and Afro-American studies, environmental issues, and political psychology. The department's internship program expanded beyond just the Capitol to offer students unique internship opportunities working for political campaigns, advocacy groups, and local government. Faculty members continued to receive teaching awards at both the college and university level, both for graduate and undergraduate instruction.
Into the 21st Century
The department continues to be an award-winning and innovative leader in exploring new methodologies, political economy, and raising critical perspectives about politics in the United States and throughout the world. Graduate students continue to excel in their path-breaking research, and the department has pioneering undergraduate programs at the University, including our writing-enriched curriculum and Bachelor of Arts/Master of Public Policy (BA/MPP) in Political Engagement (with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs). Our faculty prepares to tackle “big data” and to urge students – as citizens – to confront the vital issues of the day.
Education has changed dramatically since the start of the Department of Political Science here in Minnesota in the 19th century. Yet the department continues to emphasize its traditional strengths and values: a distinguished and creative faculty, an outstanding graduate program, a dedication to undergraduate education, and an active involvement both in the life of the University and in the community that surrounds it.