This month’s spotlight is with Tower Scholars Program Director Victoria Farrar-Myers. Victoria sits on Arlington’s City Council and teaches classes within the Tower Scholars Program on public policy. Her research focuses on the democratic process and the separation of powers. We sat down with her to see what it’s like to wear two hats–one as a policymaker and another as a professor.
What is it like to balance your professional life between being a scholar and educator while also being an elected official?
What I do as a scholar and educator helps inform what I do as a practitioner, and what I do as an elected official brings real-world experience and insights into what I do as an educator. This overlap is the key in my balancing the two roles. There have been times when I have used an issue I was facing on City Council as an example in the classroom to bring to life the topic we were discussing, and doing so not only served as an effective teaching moment but also helped me work through in my own mind how to address the issue on Council.
I also must thank Dedman College Dean DiPiero and Tower Center Executive Director Luisa del Rosal, who have viewed my public service as a benefit to the Tower Center and have supported me in my dual roles. Without this institutional support finding the balance between the two roles would have been very difficult.
Why did you decide to take on both roles?
I had told my students from the time I started teaching to be willing to role up their sleeves and make a difference in their community. While I had put these words into practice, or so I had thought, through the many non-profits I had served, it was not until my husband challenged me to do something more that my choice to take on public service became a reality. Looking back on my career, whether serving as a Congressional Fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives or as a Distinguished Chair Fulbright in Australia, I realized these moments taught me that what I study and teach about can and perhaps should have immediate relevance to governing. It was this realization and the hope of making a deeper contribution to the governing process that made me throw my hat in the ring.
What is the biggest challenge of holding public office?
Much responsibility comes from being a public servant. You have convening power to bring people and organizations together to achieve more impactful outcomes. Alternatively, though, you become the vessel for everyone’s hopes, dreams, frustrations and sometimes anger. It is this latter point that tests one’s metal and forces you to be solid in who you are, what your values are, and always be true to a fair, transparent and inclusive process. Regardless that the outcome will often make a segment disappointed or mad, a public servant must lead with the notion that service is above self and the duty is to the people who entrusted you with the office.
Senator John Tower, our center’s namesake and inspiration, was a college professor before he decided to run for office. Which of your passions came first for you?
Sophomore year in college a professor asked me to lunch. Scared and nervous, I accepted not knowing what she was going to say. In short, she told me that I was an academic and should be an educator. At 19, this did not seem like a compliment to me, but as I thought about it more I realized that being an educator meant mentoring people, helping them find their way, and elevating them to levels they themselves did not know they could achieve, much in the way she mentored me in that moment. I view my public service much the same way I view my role as an educator — it is about elevating people and the community. So, I give thanks to that professor, Sybillyn Jennings, because she was the inspiration that started me on the path I am on.
There is a record-breaking number of female candidates running for office in this year’s midterm elections. Why do think that is? What advise do you have for these women?
I published a series of studies 5 to 10 years ago that showed that women candidates were just as effective, if not better, fundraisers as male candidates, but the challenge at the time was getting women into lower offices that traditionally serve as pipelines for higher offices. Part of what is happening this year may be that women have been able to rise up through the pipeline to be in a position to seek higher office.
The advice I would like to give is not to candidates running this year, but to people (both women and men) who may want to run for office in the future. First, get involved and take leadership roles in your community, for example, through non-profit service, volunteering for city boards or commissions, working polls for other candidates, etc. This is a way to create a “presence” for yourself, such that if and when the opportunity arises for you to run for public office, people will already view you as a leader. Second, seek out mentors — men or women — who can guide you or help facilitate opportunities for you to serve. Third, do the same for those who come behind you as people have done for you. In other words, pay the mentorship and opportunities you receive forward by helping others.
What research projects are you working on now?
As a long-term project, I am working on a co-authored book to be published by CQ Press on campaigns and elections, from running for office to governing. One of the aspects that was appealing to me as well as my co-authors and the publisher was that I will be able to bring my experience as an elected official to bare in the book.