D.C.-area professors impart experience in political arena

Every profession has its stereotype, and the one that plagues academia is of a somewhat unkempt brainiac locked away in the ivory tower, lacking any practical knowledge of the real world. But D.C.-area schools can boast a number of instructors who have experience in politics or government agencies and are happy to impart what they’ve learned to their students.

Edward Berkowitz was a young historian — just 30 — when he took a break from his position at the University of Massachusetts-Boston to join President Jimmy Carter’s Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties. His stint there remains a notable part of his long career, and captures the attention of his students 30 years later. “The kids at George Washington, where I work now, are particularly interested in people with Washington experience,” he said.

Wallace Thies, a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, spent only one year with the State Department. But those 12 months in 1979 and 1980 — during which the Iran hostage crisis occurred and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan — left an indelible mark on his teaching.

“It did influence me. Not only in being able to see policies being made from the inside, it also made me aware of what it’s like to work for the government, which I try to convey to my students,” he said.

Berkowitz’s work under Carter was also short-lived: “When I got back to my terrible job that I had at the time at UMass-Boston, people said, ‘Oh, were you away?’ ” he said.

And it may not have been overly glamorous — White House staffers under President Carter weren’t afforded the same status as were those who worked in other administrations, he said — but it had its perks. He saw his $15,000 professor’s salary double. And then there were the word processors. “They were just amazing to me,” he said, marveling at the technology that allowed him to correct mistakes as he typed.

But besides the money and the technology, Berkowitz got a taste of what it is like to be among the Washington power brokers. “All of a sudden I was organizing these different hearings and meetings,” he said. “I got a call once from Caspar Weinberger who had been the secretary of [Health, Education and Welfare]. He just wanted to know what was going on,” Berkowitz said. “That was all very exciting.”

Thies was struck by the fast pace of government work. “Life in the State Department was essentially a series of deadlines,” he said. “This is something I stress” in the classroom, he said.

But despite the relative frenzy of government work, Thies said it wasn’t “radically different” from academia. “The greatest difference to me is that in the government, I had a boss that I answered to,” he said. “In academia, I don’t really have a boss.”

Berkowitz found the change of pace invigorating. Of the oft-lamented pressure for academics to churn out scholarly papers and books, Berkowitz said, “This ‘publish or perish’ thing, if it exists at all, it’s very slow-paced. Whereas in the government, what I was doing is almost like a journalist.”

If these quick brushes with government work left strong impressions on Thies and Berkowitz, Ray Batvinis brings the formation of a long career with the FBI into the classroom with him. Batvinis, who was 56 when he earned his Ph.D. in history, started taking night classes at Catholic University while a special agent with the bureau. These days, he enjoys merging his two careers when instructing students at The Institute of World Politics and Mercyhurst College. “I’m about long-term principles and themes,” he said, “and how counterintelligence officers and intelligence officers should learn from history.” Batvinis is scheduled to teach a class at George Washington this fall.

While students appreciate chances to learn from those with firsthand experience of government agencies, the professors say they find their time in the classroom rewarding as well. Thies said those pursing advanced degrees are particularly receptive students.

Batvinis enjoys that at the age of 63, he is “giving back to the next generation” through his teaching. But his work is not all about enjoyment. “It’s the next generation that’s going to have to protect us from our enemies and our adversaries,” he said.