Beginning in mid-May, politics professor Dr. Daniel Burns will leave the metaphorical school of Athens behind to try his hand at practical applications of political philosophy.
For the 2019-2020 academic year, Burns will serve as Deputy Director of Committee Staff for the Social Capital Project (SCP) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
The SCP was founded by Republican Sen. Michael Lee of Utah as an outgrowth of the congressional Joint Economic Committee, which examines the state of the nation’s economic strength, Burns said.
Rather than examining mere job statistics or GDP, Burns said that the SCP operates as a “mini think-tank within Congress,” investigating America’s social capital in terms of the health of its associations. It then aims to propose policy solutions to the federal government.
Lee’s website describes America’s communities as “critical” to forming the future of the United States. Burns said that with or without a UD student’s extensive knowledge of Alexis de Tocqueville, it is “clear that associational life” has experienced a decline in recent years.
As Deputy Director of Committee Staff, Burns said that his main responsibilities will be directing and analyzing staff research.
The great challenge, Burns said enthusiastically, will be determining what solutions can be formed based on analysis of the research and data. The “most fun part,” he said, will be creating policy suggestions that are both “politically feasible and will not cause unintended harm.”
The current political climate in Washington is especially amenable to these sorts of challenges, Burns explained. According to Burns, many conservatives are “rattled” by President Donald Trump’s election and are thus more open to creative problem-solving.
Burns said the rare opportunity to gain practical political experience, especially as a father of four young children, enticed him to remain in D.C. for another year after his current year on sabbatical.
As a politics professor, “it’s good to know what [I’m] teaching,” Burns joked.
But Burns also emphasized the importance of applying classical political philosophy to 21st century politics. Burns said one shouldn’t become “divorced from reality.”
Besides informing his teaching, Burns said he anticipates that a year in politics will inform his research and writing, especially as he continues to write Op-Ed articles. In 2018, Burns published articles about the role of the American laity and clergy in the Catholic sex abuse crisis in The Washington Post and New York Times.
He hopes the connections he will make will also help UD students obtain internships and jobs in the future.
Provost Dr. Jonathan Sanford wrote in an email that UD will benefit from “the reputational enhancement we will have from having one of our own faculty in this role.”
Burns’ upcoming policy work will be very different from his current academic position at the Catholic University of America (CUA), where he has been an Associate and Fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology during his 2018-2019 sabbatical.
The primary difference between UD and CUA has been the manner in which he passes the time: rather than teaching and partaking rigorously in campus life, Burns said he spends most days enjoying the quiet of his office.
While an adjustment, Burns said that this position permitted him to focus on why he went on sabbatical in the first place: to write.
Burns has submitted a first draft of his revised dissertation on St. Augustine’s political thought to a publisher and is in the early drafting stages of a book tentatively titled, “Against Secularism: Religious Identity in Liberal Democracies.”
“The primary value of a sabbatical” is that it permits professors to work on their writing and research, wrote politics professor Dr. Jonathan Culp. The opportunity to step away from “the demands of teaching and service” is also beneficial.
Dr. Sally Hicks, interim dean of Constantin College and professor of physics, emphasized the value of faculty obtaining experiences beyond the UD community for both the faculty members and their students.
Hicks said that it is difficult for UD to provide faculty and students with more “experiential learning” opportunities, such as sabbaticals and paid internships, due to budget constraints.
Fellowship awards and other grants are extremely competitive, so while they alleviate some pressure, more support from alumni is needed, Hicks said. UD must foster a “cycle of giving back,” she said.
Sanford confirmed that Burns has been granted a leave of absence rather than a second sabbatical.
A leave of absence differs from a sabbatical in that one can request leave for a variety of reasons, explained Hicks.
Contrary to a sabbatical, “a leave of absence is unpaid,” Sanford wrote. Hicks said that UD professors can opt to take a sabbatical for one semester with full pay, or select a year-long sabbatical with half-pay.
Burns said that CUA was “generously covering the difference” to make his year-long sabbatical possible.