Professor Jacob Hacker on his Teaching Philosophy, Policy Achievements and Yale Love Story

Jacob Hacker ’00 PhD, the Stanley Resor Professor of Political Science, studies American politics and public policy.

You first came to Yale in 1994 as a PhD student. Why did you choose Yale?

I came to Yale because my wife had been accepted at Yale Law School, and if you get into Yale Law School, you go to Yale Law School. It worked out well that Yale also had such an esteemed political science department with so many experts relevant to my research interests. I already knew I wanted to study health politics, and one of the leading scholars in that field, Ted Marmor, was at Yale. I spent a lot of time working with him in my first few years as a PhD student, and he played an important part in my coming here.

Your wife, Oona Hathaway, is also a faculty member at Yale—the Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law. How did you meet?

Oona and I met in high school in Portland, Oregon. We went to colleges on opposite sides of the country and thought we would go our separate ways, but we couldn’t quit each other. On a whim, I decided to apply to transfer to her college, and we became a kind of academic duo before we even became academics. We lived together in college, read each other’s senior theses, and were probably deeply annoying in seminars together.

What was it like returning to Yale as a professor just a few years later?

It was a combination of being completely exhilarating and somewhat frightening. The professors I’d revered were now my peers, and I was worried they would judge me or still think of me as a student. That initial fear gave way to the reality of being a junior faculty member, and I was frankly too busy to be scared. I was involved early in my scholarly career in policy debate because, as a graduate student, I wrote a proposal that would become the cornerstone of the public option plan for health care. I was the most visible academic exponent of the public option during the debates around the Affordable Care Act, so I was hard at work on research and in the policy arena.

What inspired your interest in political science?

While I was taking an intro economics class during undergrad, a public policy scholar came in to present his work on how to reduce poverty. It was a real epiphany for me where I realized that if I worked in social science, I could tangibly improve the lives of real people. I interned in Washington, DC, and became drawn into the world of health policy, which led to my dissertation on why the US came to rely so heavily on employers to provide health benefits.

After the Democrats retook Congress in 2006, I spent a lot of time in DC testifying before Congress. It’s been so satisfying to spend my career so focused on the real-world impact of government. I have always wanted to understand the motivations behind what the government does and does not do to improve people’s lives.

What is your teaching philosophy?

I take my teaching seriously and am grateful to be a well-regarded instructor. I teach a large lecture course called the Politics of American Public Policy that I am particularly proud of. I’ve taught it essentially every year since 2011, and it is the only course of its kind at Yale. It introduces the broad structure of American government and some core issues shaping how government works, like racial divides and partisan polarization, but it does so by taking people through a series of important policy areas. It varies year to year based on what’s salient at that time, but we have looked at topics like inequality, climate change, criminal justice, and immigration.

Students write policy memos modeled after the kind I wrote when working in government or trying to influence government. I enlisted many people in government to determine the best way to be effective in dissecting an issue and presenting a policy recommendation to a member of Congress or executive agency leader. Initially, the students complained about how difficult it was. They bristled at the idea of writing only four or five pages, with just a two-line executive summary and no complex graphs. However, every few years, I receive wonderful notes from people who say they are now working in the US State Department, a state’s department of revenue, or the mayor’s office in some city, and they express their gratitude for learning how to write policy memos because it aligns perfectly with what they do in their current roles.

What is your philosophy for advising doctoral students?

I really enjoy advising doctoral students. I’m mindful that they need to develop their own distinctive voices. Looking back, my professors were remarkably open to letting me pursue my passions because they knew it would produce good work, even if it was not exactly what they would produce. I also learned a lot from my time in DC working at think tanks and engaging in policy debate, and that experience deeply informed my scholarly contributions. That’s a little unusual because most political scientists are encouraged as graduate students not to stray too far outside the mainstream academic path. So, I often take on more iconoclastic students who may have interests that extend beyond pure academia. I do my best to help them become the best version of themselves, and I am always gratified when it results in them becoming successful in the field.

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