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Holden combines theory and practice on political science

Matthew Holden
Kathy Kayser
Matthew Holden

By Charlotte Crystal

It's not the glitz and glitter of television politics that fascinates Matthew Holden Jr. as much as the machinery of administration -- the gears, levers, wheels and lubricants that keep the engine of government moving more or less smoothly day after day.

"In the exercise of power, administration is the central process," Holden says.

That mechanic's-eye view of power has carried Holden through a career of 38 years -- and counting -- in political science.

The Henry L. and Grace Doherty Charitable Foundation Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at U.Va., Holden just finished a term as president of the American Political Science Association.

He will be the keynote speaker for the University's Fall Convocation, Oct. 22, at 2 p.m. on the Lawn.

Holden's interest in government began with a mayoral election in his hometown, Mound Bayou, Miss., when he was a child of 6 or 7. He attended school in the all-black community as a child, later moving with his family to Chicago. He earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Roosevelt University in 1952 and completed a master's degree at Northwestern University in 1956.

While working on his master's degree, Holden explored other career options, at one point consulting a private recruiting agency. "Gee, I don't know where I'd send a colored guy," the recruiter told him. Holden checked with the local power company, Commonwealth Edison, which did employ African Americans, but no jobs were available.

He soon signed on as a research assistant with the Ohio Legislative Service Commission. Then, after military service with a U.S. Army artillery unit in Korea in 1956-57, Holden completed his doctorate in political science at Northwestern and worked with the Cleveland Metropolitan Services Commission, a job that led to similar positions studying government agencies.

After a short stint at the University of Illinois, Holden taught political science at Wayne State University and the University of Pittsburgh, moving to the University of Wisconsin in 1969 as professor of political science, public policy and administration.

Holden believes strongly in the importance of combining theory and practice, (and has moved back and forth between the two,) for intellectual growth and career development. As a result, his primarily academic career also has included public service, as a commissioner on the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin and on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Since his move to U.Va. in 1981, he also has served on a U.S. Department of Energy Task Force on Electric System Reliability. His private sector experience included a seat on the board of directors of Atlantic Energy Inc., a major power company based in New Jersey.

An active scholar with numerous professional honors, Holden has seen the landscape of political science change. In particular, he notes a rising emphasis on a quantitative approach to research, manipulating masses of relatively recent data, and a declining emphasis on intellectual history. "In the culture of the United States, history itself disappears," he says.

Holden was particularly gratified that at a recent American Political Science Association conference in Atlanta, a scholar delivering the prestigious Gaus Lecture cited a paper Holden had published 37 years ago -- it's nice to know your work has staying power, he says.

Holden has several book projects under way, including a major revision of The Divisible Republic, a book he published in 1973 on the significance of the white-black relationship to the viability of the American polity. A second book with the working title, Bargaining and Command, will cover high-level executive politics or the transactions between chief executives, top-level assistants and department heads. And a third, theoretical book on administration, appropriately titled The Mechanics of Power, is also in the works.

In 1996, he published Continuity and Disruption: Essays in Public Administration, which won the National Conference of Black Political Scientists' 1997 Outstanding Book Award.

Asked about advice he's received that has made a difference in his life, Holden mentions his mother, Estelle Welch Holden. He was about 15 when faced with a difficult decision and went to his mother for advice. She told him to be true to his vision and not to worry about what other people thought: "They talked about Jesus, you think they won't talk about you?"

He's found her words helpful since then and in his turn, passes them on to students seeking advice, saying, "Trust your own judgment."


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