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History & Mission


Professor William H. Riker, circa 1980Professor William H. Riker, circa 1980

For five decades, since William H. Riker arrived at Rochester, the department has helped transform the discipline of political science. Working with many colleagues--above all, Richard F. Fenno, Jr.--Riker pioneered an entirely new subfield in the discipline, applied insights from positive political theory to the study of real-world politics, and trained an extraordinary group of graduate students. Fenno persuaded many of those students to turn their attention to the study of Congress. (As Berkeley professors Nelson Polsby and Eric Schickler wrote, "In the more than 200 years since the founding of the American nation no scholar has contributed more to the understanding of the U.S. Congress than Richard F. Fenno, Jr.") Consequently, what emerged at Rochester, in the words of UCSD's Keith T. Poole and Princeton's Howard Rosenthal, was "the best doctoral program in political science in the world."

When Riker came to Rochester in 1962, the department had a six-person faculty, a small undergraduate enrollment, and no graduate program. Apart from the individual scholarship of a couple of young faculty members, the department was virtually unknown on the national stage. Yet within a decade Rochester Political Science had become one of the most intellectually exciting departments in the United States. Its graduate program, established in 1963, began producing some of the outstanding scholars in the discipline, and its undergraduate program became distinguished for its popularity and rigor. Unranked in the 1960s, Rochester Political Science has been ranked a top-tier department since the 1970s. The "Rochester School" of political science has entered the vocabulary of an entire scholarly discipline. With good reason, Berkeley's Nelson Polsby characterized this achievement as "one of the great success stories of department-building in the annals of political science and perhaps of American higher education."

Professor Richard F. FennoProfessor Richard F. Fenno

In its most recent rankings, U.S. News and World Report confirmed Rochester's continuing stature as one of the nation's preeminent political science departments. Rochester Political Science was ranked #15 in the rankings released in 2009 and 2013. In the 2005 rankings, it was one of fifteen departments ranked as "strong" or "outstanding" (4.0 or higher). Moreover, in 2013 Rochester was ranked #7 in the nation in the field of political methodology (which includes formal political theory as well as quantitative methods), between Princeton and Berkeley. These rankings are based on surveys of leading political scientists who evaluate departments according to the quality of their research and teaching. With the 2009 rankings, Rochester continues to make a virtue of its small, focused, high-quality program in political science. The Rochester Political Science Department remains the smallest department in the nation regularly ranked in the top tier. With a faculty less than half the size of the average faculty in the other top-tier departments, Rochester is the only top-ranked department in the country with fewer than twenty full-time faculty members (and one of just three departments with fewer than thirty full-time faculty). In its 1993 report, which did not control for faculty size, the National Research Council ranked the Rochester department's graduate program sixth in the country and its faculty eleventh. Controlling for size and faculty seniority, a 1996 study in PS: Political Science & Politics concluded that the Rochester department ranked first in the country. A pair of surveys published in PS in 2007 ranked Rochester fourth in the nation for the job placements of PhD students and their future success as scholars.


Dedicated to the highest levels of research, teaching, and institution-building, the department builds today on this illustrious past. The department strives not only for leadership in advancing rational choice theory but, more broadly, for leadership in advancing the scientific study of politics. Historically, and today, we have a very specific notion of the mix of activities necessary to the scientific study of politics. These include:

  • Rigorous theory and the drive to generalize.
  • Rigorous empirical testing through sophisticated, theory-relevant statistical and qualitative methods.
  • Expertise about the real-world phenomena that motivate such theoretical and empirical analyses.

We distinguish our programmatic goals from those of other departments by our strong emphasis on positive theory and generalization, and by our historical commitment to (and success in) speaking to the discipline of political science. We are committed to maintaining a faculty that stands at the cutting edge of both positive political theory and statistical methodology. We are equally committed to the principle that these systematic approaches be used ultimately in the service of understanding the regularities of politics in the real world. We recognize that politics is complex and institutionally rich, that it evokes strongly held values, and that it has real consequences for society and for individuals. Thus, in building our faculty and our graduate training program, we are careful to maintain expertise on institutional and historical nuance, and on the social values important in political decisions.

Graduate education at Rochester is a community affair. Despite our range of substantive interests and methodological orientations, the faculty share a common vision of graduate training. All of us recognize the value of introducing graduate students to statistical methods and formal theory alongside a deep immersion in the intricacies of political processes. Whatever research paths our PhD alumni eventually follow, all of them are literate in the basic language and tools of modern political science. All of them can read and respond to the often-technical debates that fill the discipline's leading journals. Graduate students and faculty collaborate together on research. They all share offices in Harkness Hall, eat lunch together in the lounge, meet on Friday mornings for donuts and bagels, and attend weekly seminars together, which bring to Rochester some of the leading scholars in the country. The department's shared vision continues to be the source of its strength in sustaining the highest levels of research and student training.

Professor G. Bingham PowellProfessor G. Bingham Powell

Our undergraduate curriculum is also shaped by this vision. Through coursework and internships--including programs in Brussels, London, Washington, and the local offices of the district attorney and public defender--we present students with multiple opportunities to study and immerse themselves in the hurly-burly of politics. Undergraduate students gain familiarity with American political behavior and institutions, the nature of politics in the rest of the world, and the sources of international conflict and cooperation. The department supports research and teaching centers in African-American politics and international politics, and it enjoys close working relationships with centers in political economy, Polish and Central European politics, and women's studies.

But undergraduates at Rochester gain more than exposure to an interesting subject matter. All students majoring in political science take a course in basic political methodology, which provides them with the competency to read and interpret data. And all students are required to take a course in argument, providing them with a framework to construct, defend, and criticize theories and evidence. Moreover, the department is distinctive in supporting a range of undergraduate courses in positive political theory. Our undergraduate curriculum reflects the faculty's commitment to provide undergraduates with the ability and tools to think for themselves about the world they inhabit--to question, to write clearly, to make assertions, and to understand the relationship between theory and evidence. Every member of the faculty teaches undergraduates as well as graduate students, and all undergraduate concentrators are advised by full-time faculty members. Classes are generally small, and undergraduates have many opportunities to pursue research or reading at an advanced level.