When R. Gene Geisler joined the SF State faculty in 1960, he introduced computer-based, large-scale database analysis. That required student researchers to acquire computer programming skills, a novel idea for political science curriculum at the time. This was years before most students would touch a computer even once in college. Today, as massive amounts of downloadable data are available online, he hopes to further enhance student research techniques with a generous gift establishing a scholarship in empirical research.
The Gene Geisler Endowed Scholarship for Empirical Research in Political Science will provide annual awards to undergraduates and graduate students conducting quantitative research. Geisler wants students to focus on the science of politics — building theories and testing hypotheses.
“I’m trying to make it palatable for somebody to start a teaching career with the philosophy of science,” says Geisler, who donated a total of $312,000 to create the scholarship. “If you’re going to teach political science, or any of the social sciences, you don’t want to start with American government. The fundamental thing you’re dealing with is science.”
James Martel, chair and professor of Political Science, says the gift demonstrates that Geisler believes SF State students show promise for the future of important research.
“Dr. Geisler, in his generosity and his care for students in the Department of Political Science, gave a significant gift that allows one graduate student and one undergraduate a year to get up to $6,000 apiece in order to focus on the study of empirical political science,” Martel says. “This is one of the most significant gifts in the department’s history, and it will fund and support work on empirical research for many years to come.”
Francis Neely, associate professor of Political Science, says the scholarship will encourage faculty to provide clearer and better-promoted coursework options for empirical research and, in turn, encourage students to pursue more challenging research projects. Examples of recent student research that could be supported by the scholarship include a study exploring how high-school civics courses affect students’ sense of political empowerment, a paper on trench journalism in World War I and a project examining changes in nutrition patterns in Fiji.
More than a computing life
Geisler, 89, was born and raised in rural Missouri. Raised in a Pietist family originally from the Rhineland of Germany, he first learned civics from his father, a longtime county judge.
He earned his Bachelor’s degree from George Washington University in 1949 and Master’s from University of Connecticut in 1950. He then served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, and was stationed at Fort Baker in Marin County.
While completing his dissertation at University of Chicago in the late 1950s, Geisler worked with Democratic Illinois Senator Paul Douglas on political data analysis. Access to such data, even then, required computer programming skills to extract data sets.
In 1959, SF State President Glenn S. Dumke, visited Chicago looking for faculty recruits. He offered Geisler a plane ticket for a job interview in San Francisco.
Geisler’s first course at SF State incorporated computer programming into student research. Many graduates forged successful careers in political campaigns as well as other areas increasingly employing computer technology.
“He was a pioneer in our department, years ago, breaking ground in the use of computers to study politics. The type of statistical analyses we now take for granted was simply not possible when he began,” Neely says. “He developed courses here at SF State in which students learned both the tools to rigorously study political processes and the guiding logic that underlies such inquiry.”
Geisler’s incorporation of computing concepts and skills into the curriculum led to a position in the CSU Chancellor’s Office. He was the first director of information systems for instructional computing. A considerable amount of “politics” was involved, due to the initial resistance to the introduction of computers into campus curricula. He has considered his role to be “subversive,” cutting through bureaucracy to provide more computing access to students. He was instrumental in planning and eventually procuring the University’s first instructional computing capabilities on all 19 CSU campuses.
Geisler now does most of his research on a desktop Macintosh. He notes that the average desktop computer today has greater computing power than any of the first-generation machines he helped bring to campuses.
In addition to the new scholarship, Geisler has supported student research through the CSU’s Social Science Research and Instructional Council. He made a donation to award students for excellent research papers.
Retired from SF State since 2003, Geisler is writing a book focusing on an introduction of the philosophy of science, intended for instructors of general education courses.
Photo by Hannah Anderson