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Gift Supports Professor's Work at the Intersection of Human Nature and Political Thought

November 8, 2023

Dennis Rasmussen is the first recipient of a fellowship created with a gift from Stephen Hagerty '93 M.P.A. and his wife, Lisa Altenbernd '93 M.P.A.

Dennis C. Rasmussen

Dennis C. Rasmussen

Dennis Rasmussen knows he is doing his job if students in his Political Theory course struggle not with the assignments, but with themselves.

"My goal is to challenge the views that they hold most firmly and often unreflectively and to inspire them to think more deeply about the world around them," says Rasmussen, professor of political science and senior research associate in the Campbell Public Affairs Institute.

His work at the intersection of human nature and political thought made him the ideal candidate for the inaugural Hagerty Family Faculty Fellow. The fellowship was created with a generous gift from Maxwell alumnus and advisory board member Stephen Hagerty '93 M.P.A. and his wife, alumna Lisa Altenbernd '93 M.P.A.

Combined with funds pledged by the University in support of the Forever Orange Faculty Excellence Program, the endowment totals $1 million. Launched in early 2022, the Faculty Excellence program strives to advance academic excellence by generating the resources needed to recruit and retain diverse and talented faculty in a highly competitive academic landscape.

Rasmussen is the author of “Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders” (Princeton University Press, 2021), which was named a Wall Street Journal Best Politics Book of the Year. The book explores the doubts George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had about the viability of the nation they spent their lives building.

Earlier this year, Rasmussen published another little-known story about the creation of the United States. “The Constitution's Penman: Gouverneur Morris and the Creation of America's Basic Charter” (University Press of Kansas, 2023) tells of a Founding Father and abolitionist who put into words the ground-breaking ideas in the nation's most important document.

Rasmussen wants students to wrestle as much as the founders and other historical figures did with questions about justice, freedom, happiness and what makes a good society. "One of the greatest compliments I ever got as a professor was when a student told me...he found himself lying awake at night wondering whether everything he thought was wrong," he says.

Lisa Altenbernd and Steve Hagerty
Lisa Altenbernd and Steve Hagerty

Hagerty, whose gift supports Rasmussen's work, hopes students' disquiet will pay off later as they take their places in government and society.

"There's a lack of critical thinking in America these days," he says. "There's no more important time than now to be doubling down on schools of citizenship and the importance of democracy. Maxwell professors are some of the very best in the country doing this teaching. It's a worthy investment."

Hagerty's sense of urgency arises in part from his term as mayor of Evanston, Illinois, from 2017-21. After 16 years leading Hagerty Consulting, the emergency management firm he founded, Hagerty applied his expertise to running a suburban Chicago city of 77,000. As he confronted issues of housing, police transparency, social unrest and a global pandemic, Hagerty coped with critics undeterred by facts. He found the lack of inquiry and deliberation more challenging than his firm's work helping communities overcome devastating events, from the 9/11 attacks to California wildfires.

Hagerty and Altenbernd had not stipulated a fellowship devoted to critical thinking. They left the use of their gift to the discretion of Maxwell Dean David M. Van Slyke.

"We have a tremendous amount of faith and belief in David Van Slyke and his vision for the school," Hagerty says. "We wanted him to have the flexibility with this fund to invest in an area he believes will most benefit the school's research and teaching."

Van Slyke sought to honor Hagerty's own public service and longtime interest in developing thoughtful leaders. In 2015, Hagerty co-sponsored a panel discussion on the state of democracy, "Does Citizenship Require Sacrifice?"

"Steve Hagerty is a remarkable example of public service and leadership for our students," Van Slyke says, "and Professor Rasmussen's focus on the writings and questions that underpin our democracy will provide students the tools to emulate his leadership."

By Lenore Friend

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Published in the Fall 2023 issue of the Maxwell Perspective

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