Professor Spotlight: Craig Volden

When Batten professor Craig Volden is not teaching students about the intricacies of public policy, he is helping to build a better Congress.

Volden, who holds dual appointments at the Batten School and the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, has served as the School’s associate dean for academic affairs for the past four years and is also the founder and co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, a joint Batten School and Vanderbilt University research center that has garnered national attention.

Often referred to as a ‘quiet leader’ by colleagues, Volden’s upbringing may explain his uncanny ability to be both an effective leader as well as a dedicated scholar.

“My mother was a professor of nursing at the University of North Dakota, and she served as associate dean of the School of Nursing for a number of years,” said Volden. “So, I grew up with an example of what it meant to be a valued professor and an academic leader. Although I thought of pursuing other paths along the way, this one felt very natural to me as I finished college and started into graduate school.”

Throughout his career, Volden has managed to strike a fine balance between leadership, teaching, and research. He credits much of his work with Center for Effective Lawmaking for keeping him both grounded and alert.

“I was so nervous when starting the associate dean job that my research work would diminish,” said Volden. “But the support of the School, especially the staff throughout the school and the researchers in the CEL, has been tremendous in keeping me on track. I’m delighted to have the upcoming sabbatical year to move many of the projects underway to fruition and to further expand the important work of the Center.”

Since its inception, the Center for Effective Lawmaking has lived up to its name, demonstrating the pivotal role research plays in informing and guiding policy. Currently, much of the research being done by the Center is dedicated to the Building a Better Congress project, which aims to meet three goals: to identify the characteristics of effective lawmakers, determine the effectiveness of current members of Congress, and to understand the extent to which voters hold their representatives accountable for either their effectiveness or ineffectiveness as lawmakers.  

“The most interesting [part of the Building a Better Congress] project involves generating legislative effectiveness scores for each state legislator in all fifty states over the past twenty years, and learning about how their state experiences translate into success for those with subsequent careers in Congress,” said Volden.

Legislative effectiveness scores are calculated based on fifteen indicators that collectively evaluate whether a legislator is capable of advancing his or her agenda items through the legislative process. By identifying the number of bills each member of the House of Representatives has sponsored, and whether those bills have passed and become a law, Volden and his team are then able to compute a score for each legislator that rates their overall effectiveness as a lawmaker.

Using research generated through the project, Volden and his colleagues developed a comprehensive handbook that provides a roadmap of best practices for incoming legislative members.

“This involved us looking at all the advice new members received in their various orientation sessions, examining those pieces of advice as testable hypotheses with our data, and distilling those that withstood scholarly scrutiny to a shortlist of best practices for new members to adopt if they wish to become effective lawmakers.”

This past spring, Center researchers had the opportunity to present the guide to newly elected members of the House of Representatives to help position them for future success.

In an effort to meet the third goal of the project, Center researchers conducted a series of studies and discovered that the majority of voters still don’t know much about their lawmakers’ performance in office, stemming primarily from a lack of accessible and objective information. Going forward, Volden and his Center colleagues hope to increase transparency when it comes to the performance of elected lawmakers by publishing legislative effectiveness scores for every Representative and Senator on the Center website.

Volden’s work and dedication to the Center reflect his diligence and fierce commitment to research. Outside of associate dean duties his work with the Center, Volden has managed to continue his love for teaching, which he admits has been nothing short of enriching.

“As a Batten professor, it has been immensely rewarding to teach students who are willing to work so hard in classes and toward their career goals of improving public policies in the world,” said Volden. “Engaging with them on their missions has felt very meaningful, and I take such joy in meeting with Batten alumni and hearing about the terrific contributions they are making, building on their Batten experiences.”

The consummate scholar, Volden will promote the Center’s work internationally and dedicate time to the Center’s research and engagement missions throughout his upcoming year-long sabbatical. Volden currently serves as interim dean of the Batten School until Dean-elect Ian Solomon’s arrival on Sept. 1.

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