Nancy Burns

by Susan Rosegrant
February 2010

When Nancy Burns was in the tenth grade, she spent a lot of time in the back seat of her family’s car. Most weekends, her parents drove Burns and her little sister southwest from their new home in rural Henderson, Tenn., to check up on the old house they were still trying to sell, 335 miles away in Bastrop, La. Moving from one town to another was a frequent event in the Burns family. Burns’s father supervised garment manufacturing plants, and each time the domestic industry shrank, he chased work to another small Southern manufacturing town. The seven-hour car trips between Henderson and Bastrop were frequently hot, and many 15-year-olds would have retreated into broody silence or the obscuring beat of a Sony Walkman. Burns worked equations and found formulas. “I did math,” she recalls, grinning. “I really liked math.”

The way Burns redeemed those tedious car rides reveals two deep currents in the political scientist, now director of the Center for Political Studies (CPS)—the first woman to head a center at the Institute for Social Research (ISR). One was the early pull of her mind toward quantitative reasoning, at the core of her academic work on gender, race, political participation and public opinion. The other was her constructive, self-possessed response to a small misfortune—a strength of character that would come to serve her well in all kinds of situations, but would prove especially vital in weathering a difficult series of family health crises in the last few years.

Burns, the Warren E. Miller professor of political science at Michigan, balances a demanding professional life with intense responsibilities at home: Her six-year-old son, Sef, has cerebral palsy, and her husband, Scott, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer two weeks after Sef’s birth. But the slight 45-year-old, who peppers her speech with words like “fabulous,” “spectacular,” and “great,” shows no sign of self pity. She sees herself as lucky. That attitude is classic Burns, says Adam Berinsky, a former student who is now an associate professor of political science at MIT. “It’s something that could have been very costly for a lot of people,” he says. “Nancy just keeps on going with her typical enthusiasm.”

Academia was not the obvious path for Burns. Her parents were ambitious for her, and assumed she would attend college, but also important, they believed, was learning to play bridge. “Bridge would build the kind of social networks that would enable a successful life as a woman in the South,” Burns explains. And, in fact, she did learn to play. But her own sights were already elsewhere. Only a handful of the 149 students in her high school class were headed to college, but Burns applied to Harvard—and got in. To her disappointment, she didn’t get to go. As Burns completed her senior year in Tennessee, her parents had moved yet again, this time to Kansas, and money was tight. “When my parents said, ‘Pick any place in the state of Kansas,’” Burns recalls, “what they were saying was, ‘You got into Harvard, you’re going to need to go somewhere else.’”

In characteristic fashion, Burns made the most of the University of Kansas. As part of a special Scholars Program for 20 top sophomores, Burns worked closely with Paul Schumaker, professor of political science. She did research, took graduate statistics classes, presented papers at professional conferences, and published a paper with Schumaker on gender and local politics—heady stuff for an undergraduate. The next time she got into Harvard, this time to pursue a Ph.D. in political science, she was able to accept.

The Harvard experience could have been a disaster for Burns. At the time, the political science department was reeling from a sexual harassment case brought against a prominent professor. What’s more, Harvard didn’t specialize in Burns’s main areas of interest: survey research methods and political participation. But Sidney Verba, her dissertation advisor, was just launching a new political participation project, and Burns became a major collaborator. Their work would eventually lead to the 2001 landmark book, The Private Roots of Public Action: Gender, Equality, and Political Participation, which won the Victoria Schuck Award from the American Political Science Association for the best book on gender and politics.

In Burns’s second year, Harvard hired Gary King, on his way to becoming a leading figure in statistical quantitative methods. Burns studied statistics with King, often one-on-one, served as King’s research assistant, and co-authored an article with him. Although still a graduate student, her work began to attract notice. In 1990, the University of Michigan’s political science department and ISR hired her on the strength of her dissertation proposal.

At Michigan, Burns began delving into the work that would earn her a reputation as one of the country’s principal experts in political participation and public opinion. The Private Roots of Public Actionasked why—generations after women won the right to vote and decades into the women’s liberation movement—women still are disproportionately under-represented in political life. Though women vote in slightly higher numbers than men, they are less likely to run for office, participate in political campaigns, or donate money to political causes. Burns and her colleagues conducted the broadest-ranging survey research on the topic in history, and learned—to their surprise in some cases—that most of the reigning theories (for example, women don’t have time, due to demands of work and home, or women face active discrimination in the political world) were either incomplete or wrong.

In fact, their research showed that the root of the disparity lay in a complex, interconnected web of small differences in the ways women are treated, and in the choices they make, at home, in school, at work, and in other organizations. Added together, these leave women, by comparison to men, earning less money, spending less time in the workplace, and spending their work time differently. These differences, in turn, lead women to acquire fewer of the skills that foster effectiveness in the political arena, compared to men. They also give women relatively less visibility, which means that fewer women than men are actively recruited by political organizations. “That project is probably the best thing on political participation in the last 20 years, and she started on it when she was a grad student,” says former student Berinsky.

Later work with fellow CPS researcher Donald Kinder has delved into how people’s ideas about race and gender provide a basis for their views on public policy. “Nancy’s work is incredibly sophisticated, but also very much grounded in political reality,” says Berinsky, who took his first class from Burns in 1996 and later asked her to serve as his dissertation co-chair. “She’s concerned with how ordinary citizens interact with government.”

Along the way, Burns earned a reputation for strong interdisciplinary skills, meticulous research, powerful teaching, and astonishing energy. “She couldn’t be a person who speaks more slowly, because she has all these things she wants to get out in the world,” says Katherine Gallagher, a Ph.D. candidate in political science who has worked as a research assistant for Burns; Burns also is her dissertation advisor. A conversation with Burns entails “millions of words coming at you,” Berinsky says, adding: “Whether she was teaching us ‘maximum likelihood functions’ or she was describing a meal that she had in Spain, she’s the most enthusiastic, energetic person I’ve ever met. She can make anything seem exciting, which for statistics was a very good thing.”

While her work can’t be easily pigeonholed, Burns says the connecting link is inequality. Growing up in the South may have had something to do with that. Observing her mother—a homemaker and professional volunteer extraordinaire—may also have played a part. “My mother aspired to perfection,” Burns says. “Had she been born in a different place and time, there would have been no stopping her educationally.”

In 1999, Burns became the second woman to head the American National Election Studies, the premier social science survey that has delivered insights into voter behavior since 1948. During her seven-year tenure as principal investigator, Burns supported adding new question sets that expanded the survey’s research scope to look at issues like the impact of income inequality on voting behavior. In the process she discovered, somewhat to her surprise, that the work of shepherding a large and complex social science operation suited her. “I didn’t think it was a bad idea to build things to better social science,” she hastens to add, smiling, “but I didn’t realize that was how I wanted to spend my time.”

Those skills came to the fore in 2005 when Burns was chosen to head the Center for Political Studies. “Being CPS director is about figuring out how the organization can enable people to do their work faster, better, more wonderfully, and more ambitiously,” she says. It is also, she says, about integrating research and private lives so that researchers can spend time with their families and “accomplish great things” at work.

Burns treads carefully around the subject of how women have fared at the top tiers of academia; her normal rush of words becomes a thoughtful silence. The university is “organized humanely,” she says, in “understanding that people have obligations that aren’t exclusively inside their work space.” Burns also praises the work of Abigail Stewart, professor of psychology and women’s studies at Michigan, whose ADVANCE Program at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender has drawn attention to subtle biases in recruitment and tenure that affect the pipeline of women qualified for full professorships.

Such gender bias is insidious and hard to remove, Burns says. Female graduate students at Michigan still worry about gender dynamics in the classroom, particularly in male-dominated disciplines like political science. And then there is the ever present problem of gender politics in meetings: When men outnumber women, as they often do, women tend to feel voiceless or overpowered. Burns is unwilling to blame either men or women for that phenomenon. “We import those dynamics,” Burns says. “That people feeling silenced would mess with the pipeline of women into academia shouldn’t be a big surprise.”

At the same time, at CPS, where Burns will begin her second five-year term as director in September, she tries to mitigate those dynamics. CPS is a bottom-up organization, focused on the projects, and Burns has made a point of keeping large meetings to a minimum. “It’s malleable and permeable and not particularly hierarchical,” Burns says. “There are not a lot of places where you need to make your case, and we can move fast.”

At the personal level, finding some balance between work and home life—that classic professional woman’s issue—has been especially crucial to Burns. When her son was born, many warned Burns he might only live one or two years. Sef is now in first grade at Haisley Elementary in Ann Arbor, and advocating for him—making sure that he has opportunities to do all he can—has become central to the lives of Burns and her husband, Scott. Sef uses a computer to talk, and until a year and a half ago he had a consistent use of only two words—yuck and chocolate milk. Others involved in Sef’s care believed he’d reached his limit, but Burns felt sure he had stopped trying because it was the wrong model of language and he wasn’t motivated. When the school wouldn’t buy a better computer system, she and Scott bought it for him. Now he has about 1,000 words. “When he got the computer, his first sentence was, ‘Feel happy,’” she says. “He can crack a joke; he can tell you some elaborate thing.”

The language growth has profoundly affected how people see and assess Sef, Burns says. But in terms of real equity and integration, Sef still regularly runs up against people who don’t understand him. Burns and her husband gave Sef Scrabble for Christmas; painfully, some one else gave him a baby rattle. That it has taken so much attention and so many resources to give Sef the tools he needs to thrive saddens Burns, because she knows many other children aren’t getting those chances. “It’s disheartening for the world, because it means kids are passed by and locked in their bodies by low expectations,” she says.

Not surprisingly, Sef has changed Burns’s family life. But then, so has four-year-old Tate. Both boys love trains, and tracks snake around the floors of the house, which is painted orange in places, because that’s a color Sef loves. Meanwhile, Scott, who formerly was director of the university’s study abroad program in Seville, Spain, has lived years longer than doctors expected for a patient with sporadic medullary thyroid cancer. His current doctors don’t deal in the realm of prognoses, a fact that the couple deeply appreciates. “It’s not like it’s all a happy forward trajectory,” Burns says. “We have times when…well…looks like this is it. But so far it’s turned out that an array of good care and his resilience have made it so he’s doing great.”

Aware of these realities, Burns and her family go on with their lives. Burns is an accomplished cook and a skillful gardener—colleagues speak in awe of her rose gardens and peonies—and both boys have taken up those interests. The family no longer makes frequent trips to Spain and France and Italy, but each summer they go to California where Sef attends a language immersion camp founded by singer Neil Young for kids with cerebral palsy. “She always has seemed so good at doing things with her life that she really loves, and therefore she excels at them,” says Katherine Walsh, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a former student and advisee. “With Sef’s and Scott’s health issues, it’s made her focus even more.”

Burns has also worked to promote an atmosphere at ISR that allows room for personal lives. Known for her generosity as a mentor—she serves on a number of dissertation committees and works closely with current and former students—Burns encourages her students to seek a balance. “She was great in advising me about my work, but also in how to live your life as an academic,” says Walsh. “How to make sure that you play once in awhile. That you invite people over for dinner, so you can enjoy them outside of work.”

In addition, Burns took the quietly radical step of including photos of Sef and Tate on her official ISR website. That might seem a small thing—not terribly risky for someone as well-established as Burns—but for many women, acknowledging family ties within the professional sphere remains strictly verboten. And, in truth, Burns hesitated before adding the pictures. “I was nervous about it,” she admits. But ultimately, she decided it was important to her. “I’m not going to live a life where they’re invisible, when I’m zipping out to deal with my husband’s oncology stuff or my son’s cerebral palsy,” she says. Her smile is dazzling: “They are, of course, who I am, too.”