Out of the archives and into the classroom

Madison Koenig
March 19, 2015

The archives at Alden Library hold vast troves of materials that many students don’t get a chance to explore. This year, the Voinovich Collections Fellow,  Geoff Dabelko, aims to bring those materials out of the archives and into the classroom. 

Dabelko, director and professor of the environmental studies program at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, is incorporating materials from Sen. George Voinovich’s time in office in an environmental studies graduate course in order to offer students a behind-the-scenes look at the decision making process.

After he retired in 2011, Sen. Voinovich donated his official materials to two universities that were important to his journey. The 1958 graduate of Ohio University gave documents from his two terms as governor of Ohio (1990–98) and two terms in the U.S. Senate (1998–2010) to the Mahn Center for Archives & Special Collection at Alden Library. Documents from Voinovich’s time as mayor of Cleveland (1979–89) went to the Western Reserve Historical Society. 

The Mahn Center and the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University have collaborated to digitize selections of the numerous documents from Voinovich’s 30-year career in public office. Many of the records, however, remain only as hard copies.

As a Voinovich Collections Fellow, Dabelko was able to select new documents for digitization. He decided to focus on environmentally related documents mainly from 2008 and 2009 with a special focus on the 2009 climate change international negotiations in Copenhagen and subsequent domestic legislative debates in the Senate, including various cap-and-trade carbon emissions bills that would have limited carbon emissions in aggregate and allowed companies to buy and sell carbon credits among themselves to reduce their liability for excess pollution.

Starting in August 2014, Dabelko and first-year environmental studies graduate student Alina Raulinaitis sorted through six boxes of materials that the Mahn Center staff selected from 30 years’ worth of items. The researchers still were impressed and a bit daunted by the amount of material.

“We went through thousands of documents,” said Raulinaitis.

In the end, Dabelko and Raulinaitis selected 25 documents, which the Digitial Initiatives staff at the Mahn Center then worked to scan and make available online. These documents included letters between Voinovich and Lisa Jackson, then administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; position papers from outside organizations both supporting and criticizing proposed cap-and-trade legislation; internal office memos and staff briefings, including Voinovich’s handwritten notes; briefing points from the National Resources Defense Council and from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and many more.

Sen. Voinovich ultimately decided to vote against the cap-and-trade bill, and these documents provide critical context for understanding that decision. “We have a video clip that’s from a key hearing where he laid out his rationale for the decision he made, where he got into a bit of a testy exchange with Committee Chair Senator Barbara Boxer,” Dabelko said.

Raulinaitis said that as she sorted through the documents, she was surprised by the pressure put on Sen. Voinovich.

“I think what really shocked me was just the sheer amount of political pressure that these representatives have from every corner of the political realm,” she said. “He was getting letters from the Natural Resources Defense Council, but he was also getting pressure from all of the coal companies and all of the fossil fuel lobbies, and there was a lot of correspondence between him and Lisa Jackson, the head of the EPA. It’s amazing to see how much work and how much dialogue goes into those behind-the-scenes kinds of things.”

Dabelko said they searched for a cross-section of the opinions the senator was receiving. “We were very interested in trying to understand the senator’s thought process and the information analysis he was getting from inside in his internal staff and from outside—from the different government, nongovernmental, for-profit and not-for-profit groups who were focused on the international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen and the domestic legislation debates around the cap-and-trade bill,” he said.

Students in Dabelko’s graduate Society and the Environment course are reviewing the documents. Sarah Davis, assistant professor of environmental studies at the Voinovich School, will also use the documents in the environmental capstone course she is teaching for undergraduates working toward the Environmental Studies certificate.

“My hope is that students will get a first-hand view of how a senior political leader goes through the process of making an important decision on how to vote on a piece of legislation,” Dabelko said. “I hope the students understand the different perspectives that were put in front of him and what issues he was trying to weigh, how he tried to find more information, and ultimately better understand why he voted the way he did.”

He also highlighted the importance of the archives themselves. “One of the goals of this project is to give students the opportunity to work with primary documents and understand what a rich set of resources we have by hosting the gubernatorial and senatorial collections at Alden,” he said.

When Sen. Voinovich visits Ohio University in April, he will spend some time with both Dabelko’s and Davis’s students talking about the documents.

“I think it will be fun to ask him, for example, what would it have taken for him to vote the other way,” Dabelko said.

Raulinaitis, who has a master’s in public administration from Bowling Green State University, has already learned a lot from the experience.

“As someone who is looking to become a public administrator someday, it really illustrates the types of pressure that administrators face, especially with an issue that’s as contentious as the environment,” Raulinaitis said.

The digitized documents are available at www.voinovichcollections.library.ohio.edu.

Dabelko is conducting this project as a part of his role as the Voinovich Collections Fellow. The Fellowship is open to tenure track faculty members from colleges in Ohio. To learn more about the Fellowship and how to apply, please click here.