In a New York Times article published on Dec 27, 2015, Elizabethtown College’s own Dr. Kyle Kopko, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Director of the Pre-Law Program, was consulted in regards to a study carried out by Kopko and others – including two Etown alumni, Jillian Casey, ’13, and Julia Ward, ’13, as well as Dean Fletcher McClellan, Dean of Faculty.
The NY Times article, titled “Presidential Medal of Freedom Says Something about Presenter, Too,” discussed the trends in awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. According to the article, “the Presidential Medal of Freedom is bestowed at the president’s discretion to ‘any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution’ to national security, world peace or ‘cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.’”
Specifically, the article quoted Kopko in regards to a study which collected data on the demographics of recipients of the medals and how these demographics create a trend among presidents. “This project was the idea of Dean Fletcher McClellan. He brought the idea to me in the summer of 2012 because President Obama garnered significant attention in the national news by awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom (PMOF),” Kopko stated in a recent email correspondence.
“Studying who presidents tend to recognize for these accomplishments can tell us something about what each president values, and it also allows us to better understand how presidents use this symbolic unilateral executive power,” Kopko said.
This study did reveal some trends in regards to the PMOF including that, “Democratic presidents were more likely to award the PMOF to a recipient who was a racial or ethnic minority. Democrats were also more likely to award the Medal to individuals with significant accomplishments in the labor movement or civil rights movement,” Kopko concluded.
On the other side, “Republican presidents were more likely to recognize individuals for their military service or accomplishments in journalism (usually conservative journalists).”
Some research was also done to try to find a trend between awarding this Medal and increased presidential approval rights, but the “data did not provide any evidence that [awarding the Medal] systematically resulted in an increase in a president’s approval ratings.”
The author of the article – Peter Baker – is a White House correspondent for the NY Times. Kopko contacted Baker after seeing a column Baker wrote last year about the PMOF. “I told him about our forthcoming article and offered to send him a copy of it if he was interested in using the data in the future,” Kopko explained, “He did take an interest in our work, he asked to review a copy of the article, and then he wanted to write about it because our study was the first time anyone had systematically gathered and analyzed data on the PMOF in its 50+ year history.”
This study was something Kopko and other authors felt was important because of an increasing awarding of the PMOF. In fact, President Obama has already awarded more PMOF than any other president already and he still has a year to award more. Awarding ceremonies for the PMOF garner lots of national mass media attention, an increase in the awarding will likely increase the amount that the PMOF is in the public eye.
This mass media attention may be a part of the reason the award is given, as Kopko includes, “It also has other political implications, particularly if the president is trying to appeal to a particular constituency of voters. Even though the PMOF is the nation’s highest civilian honor, it is still politicized to some extent.”
The research team behind this study plans to release an updated version of the study upon the close of President Obama’s term. The study will also be published in the New England Journal of Political Science.
This project is, as Kopko stated, “a great example of faculty-student research. I hope other students will take advantage of research opportunities with their professors when the opportunity arises.”
“Looking back, it’s gratifying to know that a faculty-student research project like this could catch the attention of the New York Times and C-SPAN. This is one of the reasons why Etown is such a special place.