In an interview with The University Star, former U.S. representative and presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke revealed his thoughts on teaching Texas Politics at Texas State during the spring 2021 semester.
As the local, congressional and presidential elections begin to settle, former U.S. representative and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke will soon add a new challenge outside of his voter outreach efforts in Texas—teaching at Texas State.
O’Rourke’s status as a lecturer of practice is still pending finalization. Texas State’s Political Science Department, which confirmed O’Rourke’s expected arrival to The Star mid-October, says the process is going as expected.
O’Rourke says he set his sights on teaching after mulling over what his future would look like following the 2020 election season. On and off-campus events held during O'Rourke's Senate campaign and the level of energy and engagement they brought convinced him to approach Texas State over the prospect of teaching.
“I thought about what I'd want to do after this year, which has been devoted to voter registration, voter organizing and voter turnout in Texas, and the most exciting prospects would be to teach at the college or graduate level,” O’Rourke said. “I started to share that interest with people around the state and started to inquire about interest at different universities and colleges, and one that I reached out to was Texas State."
He says Texas Politics, PS 4325, arose as his class of choice after a series of positive conversations with Dr. Ken Grasso, the political science department chair, over the subjects he wanted to teach.
“I explained to [Grasso] my interest in Texas State; he said, ‘Well, what would you like to teach here, [and] tell me what a course might look like?’,” O’Rourke said. “I talked about voting rights in what is one of the most voter suppressed states in the country, the history of people who've overcome voter suppression, and we talked about our shared interest in Dr. Lawrence Nixon, who founded the first chapter of the NAACP in the state of Texas more than 100 years ago here in El Paso, Texas, and overcame the all-white Democratic primary in the 1920s and 1930s.”
O’Rourke will teach the class with Dr. Sherri Mora, associate chair and undergraduate program coordinator of the political science department, who O’Rourke describes as “someone who literally wrote the book on Texas politics”. O'Rourke emphasized his excitement to teach with Mora, whom he holds in high regard.
“I'm pretty excited to be able to teach at one of the great Texas universities, one of the great American universities, on an issue that I deeply care about and, I think, bring something [to the conversation] in my experiences,” O’Rourke said. “I'm going to be doing it with somebody of Dr. Mora’s caliber and renown.”
Mora emphasized that although the class is still under construction, it will follow the guidelines and rules required of an undergraduate class, a process to which she will bring her years of experience in higher education. Mora says the class will allow students to learn more about the inner workings of Texas' political process, including the intangibles textbooks cannot cover.
“There's a lot that goes on [that] isn't just the precise, ‘How does a bill become law in the Texas House and Senate?’,” Mora said. “Everything that I've heard, [in] just a few little bits of time that I've spent communicating with Mr. O’Rourke, is that he's very interested in sharing experiences, igniting sparks, but not sparks for the left, you know? He's looking at it in a broader perspective, which I think is a fundamental goal of higher education.”
The class will be virtual at the beginning of the semester but may move to an in-person format should the conditions of COVID-19 significantly improve. O'Rourke and Mora confirmed interest in moving to an in-person format should the opportunity present itself.
“Should we have a vaccine, or should transmission rates come down much, much further than they are right now, I would love the opportunity to be there in person,” O’Rourke said. “I think, or, I know the first priority for everyone is the health and safety of the students and others at Texas State and those who are in our lives, so that's essentially the factor that will determine whether we can do that.”
Registering for the class requires contacting Mora, as the number of students in the class is currently limited to 20 but may expand as the semester draws closer.
“Any students wishing to gain access to the class need to communicate with me and kind of express why is it that they want this class,” Mora said. “Some of the criteria for students to get access to the class would be degree applicability. Are you a political science major, are you a minor, does this somehow fulfill your educational goal? What is [your educational goal]? I've got probably 200 emails in my inbox that are awaiting [some] kind of action on that point.”
Michael Goodner, a public administration senior and prospective student of O’Rourke, says he could not miss out on a chance to take a class with such a widely-known and experienced politician.
“I thought, wow, that would be just an incredible opportunity to take a class with somebody who's so widely known, not just in the state of Texas, but also in the country,” Goodner said. “To take a class about Texas politics [with] somebody who's actually been in Congress is, I think, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
As for what O’Rourke will bring to the classroom, some students are drawn to the energy they claim he brings to his political activism and hope it will translate to the classroom. Political science junior Ryan Sternberg recalled the feelings after hearing O’Rourke speak during his Senate campaign, which led him to sign up for the class.
“I think having heard Beto speak in the  Senate election and the recent presidential election, he really [is] just a captivating speaker,” Sternberg said. “I think he brings a sort of enthusiasm for what he's doing that would be particular to him and that would be really valuable [to] students who are taking this class.”
O’Rourke looks to bring the skills he learned on the campaign trail and in government to the classroom.
“No, I've never been a teacher; I've never been a lecturer,” O’Rourke said. “But I have probably held now well over 1,000 town hall meetings, and I've done them in every single county in the state of Texas. If you've been to one of them you understand that I typically will introduce myself, share a few thoughts, literally anybody can grab the microphone and ask a question, make a comment, share an idea or level a criticism my way. I hope that that experience can be brought to bear in a positive way for this class and course.”
O’Rourke’s expected arrival has not been unilaterally applauded. Mora says she has received several emails panning the university’s decision to bring the politician on board. Mora noted that another section of Texas Politics will be taught by T. Vance McMahan, a former director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives and deputy assistant to President George W. Bush.
“I got emails from people saying, ‘What are you guys? crazy? This is nuts. Why would you put somebody like this in front of a class to indoctrinate students?’,” Mora said. “My response was, we're not here to show one side or the other. But FYI, we have this other fellow [McMahan], who served in George W. Bush's administration, teaching Texas Politics also.”
Political science sophomore Ava Stuart, another prospective student of O’Rourke’s, says those able to sign up for the class should be able to discern from education and propaganda.
“I hope that most people who have gotten to this point in their college career where they're able to take the senior-level course have those critical thinking skills where they're able to differentiate from somebody trying to indoctrinate you as opposed to educate you,” Stuart said. “I also [think Dr. Mora] would pose as a check to any sort of any indoctrination."
O’Rourke says he plans to include a wide array of viewpoints in his and Mora’s classroom, hopefully with the help of guests from all sides of the aisle. He says he has no concern over perceived indoctrination.
“One of the things I'd like to do is invite the people who hold positions of public trust in our state," O'Rourke said. "In other words, elected officials in our state, who are Republicans, who are Democrats who might consider themselves independent, so that we have the fullest possible representation of Texas politics and Texas democracy and the possibility inherent in elections in Texas.”
Some students, like general studies senior Danielle Ryan, specifically chose the class to hear O’Rourke’s experiences and his advice on increasing political participation, as well as study under a professor of Mora’s renown.
“I'm really looking forward to [O’Rourke’s] point of view on how to get more people involved in politics,” Ryan said. “My goal in life is just to get as many people involved in the political system, involved in voting, involved in helping people, so I just want to know how he does that.”
O’Rourke says he wants to continue teaching at Texas State past his first semester but admits it is not a foregone conclusion whether he will be back, saying he has to earn an extended stay.
“Here's what I want: At the end of this semester, I want my participation in this course to have been valuable to the students who took it,” O’Rourke said. “I want it to be of value to Texas State, and I want this to be something that all parties would like to continue, but I think I have to earn that, and I don't presume that that's going to be the decision that Texas State makes at the end of this. So, I don't want to get ahead of myself or get ahead of Texas State, but I'm pretty excited to be doing this."