Profile Charles Stewart III

Professor of Political Science 
former Head, Department of Political Science 


         Stewart in his rooftop garden at McCormick Hall,
         home of "the world's smallest corn patch" 


The community of academia

Charles Stewart III, born in Winder, Georgia (he can still do the accent), and raised in Orlando, Florida, wanted to live in a tight-knit, meaningful community. He originally planned to become a Methodist minister, and spent a year at Yale Divinity School, while also auditing political science courses.

Stewart's life at MIT would seem a long way from being a minister: he came to MIT as assistant professor in Political Science, became a full professor in 1999, and Head of the Department in 2005. Since 1992, Stewart has also served as the Housemaster of McCormick Hall, MIT's only female dormitory, living in the modern towers with his wife, Kathy Hess, and son, Cameron. For the 275 young women of McCormick, Stewart and his wife act as leaders and advisors.

Says Stewart, "This is like having a parish."

Though he decided against the ministry as a career, it was at divinity school that Stewart identified academia as a form of community he loved. "At Yale Divinity School I lived with my classmates and ate with my classmates, integrating life and learning. I wanted to be a housemaster because I love the campus life."

Housemaster at McCormick Hall 

MIT's campus and campus life are different from universities set in rolling green, pastoral settings, notes Stewart. And yet the Hall he lives in, where Stewart has found his "campus life," is a true community, a residence of 275 young women, most of whom spend all four years at West and East Towers, in a remarkable setting with its own rich history, culture, and architecture. McCormick was envisioned and underwritten by a female MIT graduate and designed by an MIT faculty member.

Katherine Dexter McCormick '04 attended MIT around the turn of the century. She lived at home and commuted to classes each day, a half-century before there were dorms for woman at MIT, which she helped to create during the 1950s, a decade before undertaking the massive McCormick project. Architect Herbert Beckwith, who designed McCormick's two towers during the 1960s, taught architecture at MIT from 1926–1968. He helped to design eleven buildings at the Institute, introducing the International style to the campus.

Politics as a vehicle for reform

Currently Head of the Political Science Department, Stewart describes himself as "a political historian with a twist—applying modern economic theories and statistical methods to questions that involve the early history of American political institutions." Judging from the subject of his thesis, "The Politics of Structural Reform: Reforming the Budgetary Process in the House, 1865–1921," he has been a reform junkie for decades.

Doing things together

He received his undergraduate degree in political science from Emory University, and after his year in the three-year M.Div. program at Yale Divinity School, earned his PhD in Political Science at Stanford, where he met his wife, Kathy Hess, an environmental scientist. Hess works at the Environmental Protection Agency office in Boston, evaluating the effectiveness of EPA's programs, and prior to that was a water scientist for 21 years at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Cameron Stewart, the couple's son, now a high school freshman, has lived his entire life as "the housemaster's son," as he puts it, surrounded by hundreds of would-be sisters. Cameron loves mathematics and politics, and is also a talented pianist.

It's a rich, interesting life, with vibrant bands of association. In addition to contributing to the lives of hundreds of undergraduates, Stewart has enjoyed the life of his own family at McCormick. "Kathy is a very giving and capable person, and she's developed her own presence here," he says quietly. "Part of why I wanted to become a housemaster was that I saw it as a way to do things together."

Cooking (on all cylinders)

All members of the Stewart family have participated in BBQs, pizza dinners (featuring homemade crusts), and brunches, and Kathy Hess (water scientist) conducts cooking classes during IAP. The couple co-run a freshman advising seminar based on cooking ("It's natural to talk while you're cooking," says Stewart), and the cooking poli-sci prof founded and runs MIT's Washington Summer Internship Program. The family lives on the second floor of McCormick in the airy modernism of Herbert Beckwith's architecture.

World's smallest corn patch

"We have the best apartment in Cambridge," says Stewart, who in addition to election reform is interested in gardening, cooking, and wine. "The living room accommodates about 75, so it's good for entertaining." Stewart and Hess's apartment has an extensive patio with concrete planters that are used to grow flowers, kitchen herbs, and what Stewart refers to as The Farm—containers of fruit and vegetables ranging from tomatoes and strawberries to the occasional cultivation of the world's smallest corn patch.

Amazing changes

"Of all the things I've done at MIT, being housemaster has been the most enjoyable," says Stewart. "I'm able to deal with students on a human level, and get to watch people transition into independent adulthood. The changes are so amazing during this time; it's great to watch MIT students undergo them—and even help out from time to time."

This fall, Stewart and family begin their 17th year at McCormick; it is tempting to say, leading their flock.


Also see
Making Technology Safe for Democracy
Stewart's Voting Technology Research


Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Lynda Morgenroth
Photographer: Richard Howard


Lynda Morgenroth is a journalist and essayist, author of Boston Firsts: 40 Feats of Innovation and Invention that Happened First in Boston and Helped Make America Great (Beacon Press), and Boston's Neighborhoods: A Food Lover's Walking, Eating, and Shopping Guide to Ethnic Enclaves in and around Boston (Globe Pequot Press).

Soundings, Fall 2008