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February 14, 2013

A model of success

In striving to find and meet student needs, Institute of Politics gives University departments a good example to follow.

Though I hate to be a sore winner, I am going to say, “I told you so.” On January 24, the day that my previous article (“Stumbling towards catastrophe”) was published, the heat in the Max Palevsky dormitory went out. Some 700 students were without heat on a day when the average temperature was 15 degrees. Engineers were forced to manually bleed leaked water from 400 different air conditioning units. After two days, Housing staff claimed that the problem was entirely fixed, but heat was still only working intermittently throughout that week.

I don’t claim to be Nostradamus, but my article essentially predicted that such an event was imminent. I admonished the University for engaging in its core mission—educating young minds—while ignoring and mishandling the peripheral “easy stuff” like facilities maintenance, food service preparation, and student life issues. Luckily, the effects of the outage were not catastrophic, and were not picked up by the media. But the implication from my previous argument is well-illustrated: By failing to invest in itself, the University risks—nay, ensures disaster. And when disaster strikes, the University will be unable to save face after the fact.

There is, however, one department on campus that the University is properly investing in: the new Institute of Politics (IOP). The IOP is exactly the kind of high-profile, resource-intensive enterprise that the University needs. It addresses the basic need for a student political outlet and brings political leaders to campus on a regular basis. The Institute has drawn positive media attention for a number of its events, such as a panel on gun violence that included Tom Brokaw and Rahm Emanuel and a campaign strategy event that included top advisers to both Obama and Romney. Events like these stimulate debate on campus and reinforce the idea that the University of Chicago is more than just a bastion of abstraction and academia. By hosting these experts, we project an intellectual but pragmatic face to the world.

The IOP is also helping buoy student life. By creating an advisory board and populating it with our peers, the IOP has demonstrated a commitment to truly serving the needs and wants of students. This is (weirdly) something that is rare at the University of Chicago. Through its numerous internship programs, the IOP allows students to interface with a professional world outside of business or finance. Such opportunities are sorely overdue. There is no doubt that the previous drought of these kinds of opportunities has lead to a paltry number of alumni who hold elected office. By my (admittedly casual) research, there isn’t a UChicago alum graduated in the past 40 years who has held a nationally elected office. Though it will take time, I believe that the IOP’s programs will be able to reverse this trend.

The IOP is becoming involved in student life in other significant ways. An example of this is a partnership with the University of Chicago Political Union, a newly founded intra-collegiate debate league. The IOP is lending the Union its credibility and giving it access to high-profile political leaders in order to promote the organization. The founding of a political union on campus is a great step in building prestige and notability. At peer institutions like Yale and Oxford, unions have grown to become some of the most cherished institutions on campus. Many a great leader has passed through such unions, and we can hopefully replicate that success here. The IOP recognizes the importance of such an endeavor, and has legitimately contributed to the student group. While this is commendable, it is also a sad reminder that the University undertakes very little of this kind of activity. The IOP–Political Union relationship should be the model, not the exception.

Based on less than a year of performance, it is clear that the IOP is doing some great things around campus. It is contributing to student life in a number of different ways, each of them significant. It is decisive and has brought real improvement. Thus, I believe that the IOP should be used as a case study for departments that have not been quite so successful. Applying the results-oriented, proactive approach of the IOP to other departments around campus would undoubtedly lead to a more productive campus as a whole.

The reason that the IOP is an effective organization is because it employs a philosophy dedicated to constant improvement. It seeks out new ways to better itself and provide more value to the University. Instead of treading water—following the same procedure year after year and waiting for a crisis to occur—the University should instead seek out ways to better accommodate the needs and wants of the University community. Otherwise, it runs the risk of continued embarrassment or even a decline in prestige. Losing heat for a few days ultimately doesn’t mean anything, but the foreboding chill associated with that event remains even though the heat has come back on.

Taylor Schwimmer is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy studies.

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