Fifty Years, 13,450 Students and 5,000 Interviews: UVM's Garrison Nelson Calls It a Career | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Fifty Years, 13,450 Students and 5,000 Interviews: UVM's Garrison Nelson Calls It a Career


Published October 18, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 26, 2017 at 3:39 p.m.

Garrison Nelson teaching a class - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • Garrison Nelson teaching a class

When former Vermont governor Howard Dean ran for president in 2004, national media turned to University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson for insight.

"I think he is an arrogant, ill-tempered schmo who does not play well with others," Nelson told the Houston Chronicle.

Many of the same political reporters came back 12 years later, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wanted the job. They called on Nelson to capture the politics and personality of the quirky democratic socialist who'd once been mayor of Burlington.

"Bernie's the last person you'd want to be stuck on a desert island with," Nelson told the New Yorker in 2015. "Two weeks of lectures about health care, and you'd look for a shark and dive in." 

In his day job, the bearded professor with a booming, Boston-accented voice has spent nearly 50 years bringing dry political facts to life for thousands of students while churning out a steady flow of academic research.

To the broader public, though, Nelson is known as the man to whom journalists both local and national regularly turned for well-informed analysis — and no-holds-barred skewering — of Vermont politicians and their ambitions.

Now, after 13,450 students (including this reporter), 11 books and more than 5,000 media interviews (yes, he keeps track), UVM's most quoted professor is retiring. The 146 students in his two political science classes this semester will be his last.

Nelson is calling an end to a career that has made him one of UVM's most public figures. On campus and off, he has chafed and informed generations of students, politicians and voters. "With full classrooms and multiple book demands at age 75, the pace has become grueling," said Nelson, whose walk has slowed to a shuffle on the well-worn route between his Old Mill office and Lafayette Hall classroom.

Looking back, it's hard to believe that Nelson lasted a full year, let alone five decades, at UVM. He's poked at not just politicians, but university brass. In 1971, as a relatively new, untenured teacher, he protested the politically motivated ouster of a left-wing professor, Michael Parenti; 30 years later, then-tenured Nelson feuded publicly with his university bosses over pay and college leadership.

For a while, Nelson considered leaving UVM. From 1996 to 2002, he worked part-time at Boston area colleges and had designs on landing a full-time job at one of them. But he held on to his tenure and continued to teach in Burlington during that time. He's now one of the university's longest-serving professors.

As he completes his employment, Nelson said he has mellowed. He claims to admire the full slate of university leaders above him. The twice-divorced Nelson remarried this year. He literally beams over the positive reviews of his newly released book, a 910-page tome on the little-remembered 1960s-era U.S. House speaker John McCormack. Nelson refers to the book's publication as the "crowning moment" of his career.

At an official gathering last week to honor his upcoming retirement, Nelson told colleagues that a friend asked him why he wanted to retire now, when things are going so well. "My answer was, 'It won't get any better than this,'" he said.

In the classroom, Nelson is known for turning large numbers of students — including apolitical ones — on to political history through the stories behind it. He's a natural raconteur, whether the topic is the rise of Woodrow Wilson, the Austin-Boston dominance of the U.S. House or his own Massachusetts roots. Nelson's single mom raised him and his younger half-sister in working-class Lynn after his Communist father left.

"Super paper. Star of the day," Nelson told one young woman as he handed back papers to the 39 students in his Electing the President class last week.

"More sources, Maddie. More sources next time," he told another, also loud enough to be heard by everyone in the room.

Former student Jade Harberg said she liked the way Nelson challenged students with candor and humor. "I appreciated teachers who were willing to shame their students to work harder," the 2013 UVM grad said.

Harberg, who now works for Nelson as a researcher in Washington, D.C., recalled that the professor sent her class an email listing the students who had turned their papers in early and those who had been late. He included a statistical analysis that concluded men were more likely to be tardy than women and told the class, "This is why women are ruling the world."

Nelson gets high marks on the website Rate My Professors. Former students graded him 4 out of 5 in quality, and 89 percent say they would take his course again. But the comments reflect a range of reactions to the professor's personality.

Some called him a "genius," "hilarious" and "extremely helpful." A typical dissenter, on the other hand, concluded: "Pompous, has a weird inferiority complex about not having gone to Harvard."

Clark Bensen, a 1974 UVM grad, said Nelson's intensity helped push him into political science from his math-economics major. "For me, he was a breath of fresh air, or more like a gale-force wind," Bensen said. Today, Bensen still uses the skills Nelson taught him to run Polidata, a Virginia-based firm that analyzes political data.

Nelson made an impression on his colleagues, too. Anthony "Jack" Gierzynski, chair of the UVM political science department, said that when he arrived at the university in 1992, he saw Nelson's students were enthralled by his storytelling.

"At first, I tried to imitate that," Gierzynski said, but he quickly found it didn't work for him. Noting the 2013 retirement of equally charismatic political science professor Frank Bryan, Gierzynski said Nelson is "the last of that breed."

Despite his outsize personality, Nelson has spent a considerable part of his professorial career toiling quietly on detailed research on esoteric subjects. He has produced thick volumes on the membership of congressional committees that may be valuable reference books — albeit not best sellers.

At least one student appreciated that. "The guy has an encyclopedic mind and has done granular research on New England politics," said journalist Scott MacKay, a 1974 grad who has long relied on Nelson's insights — and quotability — as a political reporter in Vermont and Rhode Island.

Nelson had wanted to write a book about McCormack since he met the former House speaker in 1968, just before he started working at UVM. Eleven publishers turned him down — McCormack was a key player in his time but a relatively obscure historical figure — before Bloomsbury Publishing finally offered him a deal. John William McCormack: A Political Biography came out in March.

Such work earns an author academic credibility, but Nelson is more likely to be remembered for his outspoken political commentary. Insisting it "was not a central feature of my UVM life," he explained, "I fell into it because, apart from my buddy Frank Bryan, others at UVM were reluctant to do it."

Nelson has been analyzing Vermont politics for print and television journalists since Democrat Phil Hoff sat in the governor's office in the 1960s. He's provided plenty of straight, factual observations but over time became known for a spicier variety of analysis.

He admits that he's dished it out unevenly.

Nelson thinks highly of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), for whom he worked for two years, so Leahy has largely been spared his barbs. He has also generally spoken favorably of the political skills of former U.S senator Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) and former Republican governors Jim Douglas and Richard Snelling.

For Sanders, whose political career he's followed since 1981, Nelson has both criticism and affection. "The difference between Bernie and most of the lefties is, Bernie wants to win," Nelson said in the October 2015 New Yorker article. "Most lefties don't want to win, because if you win, you sell out your purity."

His analysis was acceptable to his daughter, Shyla Nelson Stewart, a Sanders devotee who seconded the senator's nomination at the Democratic National Convention.

"The most important thing he said was, Bernie has been on the same agenda his entire career," she said of her dad's comments, "and that that agenda has caught up with the times."

Nelson has been harder on Dean and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

"I never understood why Howard was running for president other than the fact that Howard wanted to be president," he said before class one day last month. "It was just Howard's ego." Dean did not respond to a message from Seven Days seeking his point of view.

Nelson is slightly less dismissive of Welch. Nelson said their feud started when he made a comment to a reporter during Welch's 1988 campaign for the Democratic U.S. House nomination, saying Welch's strategy of concentrating his campaign in southern Vermont was a mistake.

"Peter took offense," Nelson said. When Welch confronted him, Nelson said, he responded with choice words.

Welch insisted last week that he doesn't remember the incident or Nelson's specific comments, though he did say the professor was always critical.

"He showed no mercy," Welch said. "He was extremely good at cutting folks down to a size that was smaller than they thought they deserved."

Daughter Stewart provides some insight. "What my father has most railed against is anyone who has even the slightest sense of entitlement," she said of Nelson, who often talks about growing up poor.

Nelson saw that attitude in Dean, who grew up on New York City's Park Avenue.

"His born-again liberalism has caught a lot of us by surprise — it's a case of 'Howard, we hardly knew ye,'" Nelson told the Associated Press in 2003. "He's really a classic Rockefeller Republican: a fiscal conservative and social liberal."

His disapproval of Welch, a lawyer from Springfield, Mass., is more complicated. Nelson viewed Welch and his late wife, Joan Smith, as a couple in search of power — his in politics and hers at UVM, where she was dean of the College of Arts and Science and Nelson's boss.

In a 2001 column, the late Seven Days columnist Peter Freyne wrote, "Nelson told Seven Days that Smith and her husband, former gubernatorial candidate Peter Welch, 'wanted to be the Democratic Snellings, with Peter holding the governor's office and Joan holding high office at the university' — a reference to the late Governor Richard Snelling and wife Barbara Snelling, who served as a UVM vice president for many years."

Nelson does not let go of such opinions easily, nor does he like being on the receiving end of the kind of criticism he so readily doles out to others.

Nelson recalled comments Freyne made about him during Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. "Peter bashed me in four separate columns," Nelson said, alleging that Freyne was courting Dean's campaign in hopes of landing a job.

In one of those columns, Freyne said, "Garrison despises Howard Dean, always has and always will. We suggest it's all about ego — Nelson's, not Dean's."

Asked why this still roiled him 13 years after Dean's campaign ended and eight years after Freyne's death, Nelson said, "I'm Irish, for Chrissakes; I don't forget anything. Irish Alzheimer's — you never forget a grudge."

Nelson doesn't get as much ink in the newspapers as he once did — which is his choice, he said, because answering questions from reporters takes away from his research time. He didn't have a lot to say about former governor Peter Shumlin and has been just as quiet on Gov. Phil Scott and President Donald Trump. But he makes no apologies for comments made over the years about politicians, students or his bosses.

"When you're an outspoken person, you're going to piss people off. I've pissed people off," Nelson said. "But I'm still here — 50 years."