The legacy of Thomas Carsey


Early on the morning of February 22, many of us learned the news of Tom Carsey’s passing after a difficult battle with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This post is meant to honor Tom’s many contributions to political science from a few of his former students.

Tom was the Thomas J. Pearsall Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 2006 and director of the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science from 2011 to 2017. He previously taught at the University of Illinois Chicago (1995 to 2000) and Florida State University (2000 to 2006). Tom served as editor of State Politics & Policy Quarterly from 2010 to 2014, president of the Southern Political Science Association from 2014 to 2015, and host of the annual State Politics and Policy Conference (2009) and Political Methodology Conference (2005, 2012). He garnered thousands of citations, advised dozens of students, and won numerous awards for his research, teaching, and service to the discipline.

If you asked him about his research interests, Tom — in his typical self-effacing style — would tell you he was a jack of all trades, master of none. Broadly speaking, he was interested in representation: how the behavior of the mass public connected with the decisions made by elites in government. He studied this relationship in several different areas of American politics.

He published well-known work on campaigns and elections, political parties, voting behavior, and legislative decision making. He was a particularly active researcher in the state politics community. His 2000 book on gubernatorial campaigns, for example, frequently appears on graduate syllabi.

Perhaps his most visible work was the development of a theory of “conflict extension” with longtime friend and coauthor, Geoff Layman. Conflict extension provides a novel explanation for growing polarization in the mass public; it centers on the idea that over time, party identifiers have brought their issue preferences in line with the positions of party elites, whose views are informed by the extreme preferences of party activists.

This explanation contrasts with earlier explanations that emphasize conflict displacement or ideological realignment. Tom’s work on conflict extension has been highly influential in the literatures on parties, voting behavior, and polarization over the past two decades, and is relevant to understanding American politics today more than ever.

Tom had a natural way of making everyone around him feel welcome and included, whether in conversation, at a meal, or in his home with his family. Bruce Desmarais recalls that, as a first-generation college student, Tom’s welcoming nature was crucial in helping he and his wife, Rebecca, integrate into academic life.

He began every conversation, class, seminar, or talk with the assumption that everyone in the room had the potential to contribute. Jeff Harden remembers one instance in which Tom explained that we should approach every journal article review as an opportunity to help someone who may not have received guidance any other way. Tom carried this responsibility to offer feedback into conference and seminar rooms.

Anyone who regularly attended talks with Tom will recall that he would always ask a question or two in an effort to help the speaker with the project and set an example for others in the audience. This was most evident at the annual State Politics and Policy Conference, where Tom would spend the graduate poster session with each individual graduate student to help them with their projects and get to know their broad area of interest.

As an adviser, Tom tirelessly offered feedback on his students’ work. Tom’s accumulated comments on his students’ dissertations would likely exceed the length of the dissertations themselves. He always made time for his students and they always knew his door was open.

Jenny Benz lost count of the number of times she stopped by Tom’s office with “just a quick question,” and left an hour later with a far more refined approach to her research. Tom was also an emotionally supportive advisor.

Justin Kirkland recalls that Tom gave him a genuinely safe space in which he never had to worry about feeling foolish. He could be confused about a method, disappointed in his progress on a project, even angry at a review, and Tom was always willing to talk with him. The safety to make mistakes and learn from them or to be foolish and not judged was crucial to successful development as a student.

Although Tom was an impressive scholar, it would be a mistake to measure his legacy simply by the number of books, publications, or grant dollars he produced. Tom’s true impact came from how he influenced the lives of his family, students, colleagues, and nearly everyone he encountered in his lifetime. His kindness, compassion, sense of humor, quick wit, and selfless behavior serve as reminders that being an exceptional academic and all around good person are not mutually exclusive.

When Kevin Banda’s mother became disabled and dependent on him during his time in graduate school, Tom found ways to help him earn extra money through additional teaching opportunities and research assistantships. Tom’s relationship with his wife, Dawn, and his children Simon and Jane, are role models for young parents. Two key parenting/relationship lessons Jason has taken from Tom are 1) find someone way out of your league, become best friends, and live happily together every day, and 2) if your baby is fussy, bend him/her in half.

Tom was and will continue to be a key role model for all of us in our professional and personal lives. He provided us with a blueprint for how to be a good scholar, colleague, mentor to others, partner, parent, slow pitch softball ringer, and many other important life positions. Since we have left graduate school, a number of us have faced many of the professional rigors of academia like handling student needs, starting a career, and even starting families all at the same time. While Tom took pride in helping each of us flourish as junior faculty members, he took more time helping us become better parents, better partners, and better people.

Despite all that he did, Tom never made us feel like we owed him a great debt for his service. Instead, he often told us that the best way to thank him was to pay forward the gift of mentorship to our own students now and in the future. As we have each navigated academia and life, the mantra guiding many of us has been “What would Carsey do?” We will miss Tom dearly, and even though he has passed entirely too soon, his care and compassion in life and academia will be carried forward by all of those he influenced during his lifetime.

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