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Politics in Partnership: What's Their Secret?

Some couples have trouble doing simple DIY projects together, but this alumni couple work in the same department at the same university and still enjoy catching up at the end of the day. by Monica M. Jones


When Nathan Kelly ’99 served as a campaign manager for Jana Morgan ’98 during her run for student body vice-president at Wheaton, neither had any idea how long their alliance would last.

The couple met as freshmen when Nate played a prank on Jana and her dorm roommate. Both political science majors, they had several classes together, but their friendship truly blossomed one summer when Jana studied abroad with the Wheaton in Mexico program. With limited Internet access, they wrote letters, and after Jana returned to campus, they officially started dating.

While at Wheaton, Dr. Lyman “Bud” Kellstedt HON mentored Nate and invited him to be his research assistant. “I really loved the work of research and discovery,” says Nate. Meanwhile after completing an internship at the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador, Jana realized she was less interested in the day-to-day bustle of the political arena and more excited about working to shape the thinking of policymakers.

As the pair tried to coordinate their application efforts for graduate schools, Nate and Jana were simultaneously planning a wedding in the summer of 1999. Fortunately when Nate applied and was accepted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, faculty there learned about Jana and both were accepted with full funding.

Once finished with school, they never dreamed they would be able to work together. But both landed tenure-track positions in the department of political science at the University of Tennessee in 2005, where they’ve been ever since.

Perspectives from friends in academia help keep them grateful. “Many academic couples we know had to live apart and commute for many years before getting jobs together. And often when they get jobs, one partner has to really compromise professionally,” says Nate. “We’ve never had to do that.”

Both recently earned tenure and now serve as associate professors at the university. Nate’s primary research interest is the macro political sys- tem of the United States, and he has earned both the “Junior Faculty Excellence Award” from the College of Arts and Sciences and “Professor of the Year” in the department of political science.

Jana’s research on analyzing gender inequality and public attitudes and behavior in emerging democracies has meant conducting research in Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina. Her book Bankrupt Representation and Party System Collapse (Penn State Press, 2011) received the 2012 Van Cott Outstanding Book Award from the Political Institutions Section of the Latin American Studies Association.

Only recently has the pair been able to “officially” collaborate on a research project. Last year they spent several months in Chile gathering data for a project on inequality in Latin America, producing a paper that will soon be published in the Journal of Politics. They also recently received a substantial grant from the Russell Sage Foundation to explore how the sources of campaign finance influence political rhetoric and the lack of public support for redistribution in the United States.

While working in the same field can be a blessing, it can also bring challenges. “We are sort of always working, but that may have more to do with the life of an academic than working with each other,” says Nate.

And it also becomes even more critical to separate work from personal identity. “It’s important that a critique of work not become a critique of your spouse,” says Nate, noting, “You have to really root for each other, which can be harder to do when you are in the same line of work because a competitive nature sometimes arises, and you have to set this aside.”

While there have been times when serious intellectual or professional debate has created tension, Jana says she’s learned patience, generosity, and kindness from her husband’s example. “From my perspective— kindness, directness, and devotion to each other have served us well in building and maintaining a lasting personal and professional partnership.”

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