Last Monday, the Institute of Politics (IOP) hosted Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke with a select group of students in an off-the-record session. The event, albeit a remarkable opportunity, raises concerns about the inaccessibility of the IOP to the general student body. One of the goals of the Institute, officially opened in January, is to help “students here at the University to become that much more engaged in the world around them,” according to IOP Executive Director Darren Reisberg. In order to achieve this goal, it is in the best interest of the IOP to broaden the accessibility of their events to students, and there are many feasible ways for them to do so.
Students were selected from a lottery to hear Biden speak, but the lottery itself was only open to students who had received a special invitation from the IOP. The criteria under which one is qualified to receive such an invitation remains unclear. The same selection process has been used at least once in the past for an event with former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner last year. By handpicking attendees, the IOP is able to better the odds that students who attend are genuinely interested in politics and will ask informed questions. But this method sets a precedent of insularity that could leave students passionate about politics on the outside looking in. Furthermore, the IOP has an opportunity to introduce the idea of engaging in public service not only to public policy and political science majors, but to students of all concentrations, from computer science to East Asian studies. A possible solution could be to give lottery priority to students with a strong demonstrated interest in politics, but there is no reason why an event should be completely closed off to the rest of the student body.
It is understandable that some events are more rewarding in intimate and candid settings, but the IOP could still do more to make the speakers at small events more accessible to those interested. In events that are off the record, a separate press availability period—like the ones hosted when Senator John McCain and representatives Chris van Hollen and Peter Roskam visited campus—can allow students unable to attend to still benefit from the speakers’ presence on campus, even if indirectly. Off-the-record events provide invaluable opportunities for honest dialogue, but the IOP can make speakers more accessible to students while still preserving the unique quality of these events.
Instead of filtering the crowds their talks may attract, the IOP would do well to see the opportunity in the draw of high profile speakers. They have the potential to inspire not only students already involved in politics, but also those with a passing or perhaps budding interest. As governments confront new challenges, people with a wide range of skills are always in high demand—from programmers who can make sure that the nuts and bolts of a healthcare website work, to climatologists who can understand the scientific evidence behind global warming. With unique access to students who have the potential to be experts in their fields of study, the IOP can make clear the path toward careers in public service by drawing a more diverse crowd to its events. The IOP has the chance to show all UChicago students, known for their predilection for theory, that the practice of politics can be both stimulating and rewarding.
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