October 17, 2008

Former math professor cites political corruption in his decision to seek state office

This election day, Chicago voters will be able check off the name of a former U of C professor. No, not that one. Daniel Biss, who taught math at the University, is running for State Representative on the city’s North Side.

Biss’s campaign, which has drawn attention for its successful internet fundraising, has used Facebook, myspace, YouTube, and blogging to gain publicity. John Green, a friend of Biss’s, vowed last year to humiliate himself—and broadcast himself online—if more than 200 people donated to Biss’s campaign. His cat-licking, leg-waxing, and pureed Happy-Meal–drinking antics succeeded in raising several thousand dollars for the campaign.

According to Biss, the decision to run for public office was motivated by a desire to change the political scene.

“When I got a job at the U of C, it was like my dream job,” Biss said. “But I got upset about the state of the country and all the corruption.... I figured the best way for me to make a difference would [be] for me to run a state-level campaign.”

Although Biss’s faculty position only officially ended this fall, he said he had been planning to run for office since March 2007.

“It was a pretty weird transition,” he said. “There’s a way in which math professors aren’t noted for their extroverted nature.”

“But I will say that being in front of a classroom was hugely, hugely a training ground,” he said. “It helped me just be comfortable in front of an audience and know when I was being clear and when I wasn’t.”

Although Biss’s campaign is predominantly volunteer-driven, he said that he is refraining from organizing student support on campus in order to avoid a conflict of interest. But he added that he would like to see more academics get involved in politics.

“I think it’s easy for academics to feel very, very frustrated in the frivolities of the political process and withdraw,” he said.

“They have a ton to offer,” he added. “Intellectual open-mindedness is far too rare a quality in politics.... There’s a lot of instinctive decision-making.”