Prof. George Moyser with wife Stella and Luis Vivanco, Director of GRS, May 6, 2010
Professor Moyser is Professor of Political Science, serving as Chair of that department between 1997 and 2010. He also served as Director of UVM’s European Studies Program (1991-7), and as Liaison Officer for the UVM-Sussex University Exchange Program (1994-2006). Professor Moyser received his B.A. from University of Manchester and M.A. from the University of Essex, both in England, and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He joined the UVM faculty in 1987 as an already accomplished scholar. Professor Moyser is an internationally-recognized specialist in Western European comparative politics, focusing on political participation and the relationship between religion and politics. He is retiring this spring after 23 years at UVM.
In March, I sat down with George to learn about his career, scholarship, and involvement in international studies at UVM. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation.
On his intellectual formation:
When I went to University of Manchester in 1963, I went into a program that was unusual in British universities in that you didn’t go to read a particular major but you had a common social science first year. If anything I went to read Economics but I soon found studying American, British, and Soviet politics seemed very exciting. One of my teachers in my final year was an American teaching in Manchester. Political Science in Britain and Europe at the time was much more historical and legal, less social sciency. He taught a course called “Political Behavior” which wasn’t about studying constitutions and history but studying people. This really engaged me. This behavioral revolution opened up a whole new array of political topics. For example, studying interest groups which are not official governmental organizations, not mentioned in any constitution. But also studying individual behavior, like voting behavior. Why do people vote? Why do they participate? How do people develop their political attitudes? It wasn’t abstract graphs, it was studying real people acting in a political way. That’s been my interest in life and scholarly contribution.
On coming to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D.:
Michigan was a great place to be. It had the Inter-University Consortium for Political Research which still exists and is probably the world’s biggest archive of data. I was sitting on a mine of information and political surveys. I dove into these archives and put it all on magnetic tapes. It was very primitive computing with the cards that you put into a computer and it would whur away and you would get the output; it was nothing like today. My thesis was a comparative study of how regional characteristics within Britain and Italy shape political normative climates and affect individual voting. It reflected on the one hand my orientation to studying people acting politically with my interest in European comparative politics.
On his cross-Atlantic academic career:
After I finished my Ph.D. I went back to Britain because I was on a visa that required I leave the United States and bring the “good news” of American academia back to my home country. I went back to Manchester with something of a zeal to bring back all the new ideas and skills I’d learned at Michigan. I was rather naïve! I found that the atmosphere was rather conservative, resistant to new ways of looking at politics. They would tolerate me but I was not going to change the whole dynamics of the department so I started thinking about coming back to the U.S. Then Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979. Eventually she began pressing the universities very hard. She basically thought that we were all left-wing layabouts who didn’t contribute to the national economy. Many of us working in Britain with American Ph.D.s thought if we’re not appreciated here let’s go back to the U.S. where we are appreciated! By that time I was a tenured professor so I wanted to be careful about where I moved. I applied to UVM for an open position and came in as an Associate Professor. As I discovered later it had just been annointed as a Public Ivy so it was entering this whole new golden era. I had always thought Vermont was a nice place to live from a European perspective.
On his involvement in European Studies and the University of Sussex Exchange Program:
I gravitated to the European Studies Program and I got on the Executive Committee. They were delighted to have someone interested in helping out, especially from the Political Science side. From there I became director of the Program. One of the slight oddities of the European Studies major at the time was that there was one required course, the Geography of Europe. Along with others, I thought yes, to have an understanding of the geography of Europe is important, but it’s not the sole, central focus of the program. So we undertook the reorganization of the major, dividing it into the history and social side, and the literary, philosophical, and cultural side. We also had the idea to have a capstone senior seminar that would bring students from across European Studies. That didn’t work out terribly well because we didn’t have the resources to have people committed to it.
At Michigan I was an international student and I found it such an amazingly positive experience. When I came here and the whole idea of study abroad was on the table and I thought this was something I should support. Sussex University in England approached us about doing an exchange program. I think the exchange isn’t as strong as it used to be. But when the British students would come here, I would reach out to them and help them to climatize to the American ways and the UVM ways of doing business.
On his future plans:
Shall I be doing some research? I hope I will. One of my interests has been in religion and politics. I did a piece not so long ago on the World Council of Churches, which is based in Geneva. It made me realize there has been no study at all on its political relationship with the UN and other international organizations. It has been mainly studied from a religious, theological institution end, as an ecumenical organization, not so much its pursuit of social and economic justice, which is what a lot of it is about. So that is one thing I might do. Another project is that one of the major differences between Western Europe and the United States is what you might call the collapse of institutional religion, in terms of it sort of being a cultural power and as a moral authority. It’s lost a lot of political clout that it used to have in years past. So one of my interests would be to say, “what is, or will be, the relationship between religion and politics in Europe in this sort of ‘post-church,’ ‘post-institutional’ situation?”
As for where I’ll be based, well I don’t know. That’s an open question. I don’t think we’ll be going back to Britain, although for many years I thought that that’s where I would end up. You know, I thought that my mission here was to bring a knowledge and understanding of European politics to American students and when I retired, that job was sort of done, and then I’d go back to Britain, but I’ve been here too long and am too entrenched, family-wise and every way, that I think that’s off the table.