The Consequential Academic: Alan Rosenthal's Influence on State Legislatures - Pacific Standard

The Consequential Academic: Alan Rosenthal's Influence on State Legislatures

The professor of public policy, who passed away last week, knew his subject in a way few of us ever will, approaching it simultaneously as a scholar, a reformer, and an advocate.
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Alan Rosenthal died last week. You may not have heard of him, but you were probably affected by his work.

Rosenthal was a professor of public policy and political science at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, the place where he'd worked since 1966. He was shockingly prolific, having authored nearly 20 books, almost 40 articles, and roughly 50 book chapters, mostly on the subject of state legislatures. This productivity commanded the respect of his fellow scholars.

But Rosenthal truly distinguished himself by reaching beyond the academy. He was someone who cared deeply about democratic governance in the American states, focusing on them at a time when most scholarship and journalistic coverage of American politics was fixated on Washington.

When Rosenthal wrote or taught, he was drawing upon not only cutting-edge research, but also an expertise built upon hundreds of visits to state legislatures across the country.

In the 1960s and '70s, Rosenthal directed comprehensive studies of the legislatures in eight states—Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin—with the aim of improving their performance and their power. The resulting recommendations, including switching from biennial to annual sessions, increasing legislator salaries, and creating non-partisan legislative research offices, were adopted in many states, and it is fair to say that his advocacy helped produce a revolution in state legislative professionalism during this time period. He went on to consult with 35 different state legislatures about ways to improve their functioning.

Rosenthal also developed a seminar series for promising politicians, inviting state legislators across the country to Rutgers to discuss governance, legislative procedure, lobbying, ethics, and the career of politics. Many graduates of this program went on to become legislative leaders in their states and nationally, and they stayed in touch with Rosenthal over the years.

As his students and peers knew, when Rosenthal wrote or taught about state legislatures, he was drawing upon not only cutting-edge research, but also an expertise built upon hundreds of visits to state legislatures across the country and countless conversations with their members. He knew his subject in a way few of us ever will, approaching it simultaneously as a scholar, a reformer, and an advocate.

It is fitting that one of his final honors came when he was named the tie-breaking member of the state's redistricting commission in 2011. (The commission's other members are even numbers of Republicans and Democrats, who typically vote in opposite ways.) To be entrusted with such a powerful position in such a consequential body speaks to the dedication and integrity for which Rosenthal was known.

Rosenthal is remembered today by his students, colleagues, friends, and family, but chances are that you, too, live in a state that is governed differently—and better—thanks to his work.

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