Last November, hundreds of students attended an election night watch party at the Reynolds Club hosted by the Institute of Politics (IOP). They spent the beginning of the night taking photos in front of an American flag made of balloons while Steve Edwards, the Executive Director of the IOP, was interviewed in a Facebook live event by The Maroon. He described the watch party as “a place for students to hang with each other and talk and process what’s going on.”
Six months later, the balloon American flag is gone, but the processing is far from over. Now, when he is asked about the election, Edwards is more cynical.
“Like the rest of the country, much of the world, and many on this campus, we, too, have been trying to process what the implications are of the Trump presidency. [The election was] a cataclysmic event for American politics,” Edwards said.
David Axelrod, the founder and Director of the IOP, agrees with this sentiment.
“There’s a lot to understand, and there’s a lot of conversation to be had about why this came about,” Axelrod said.
For some, this need for processing speaks to the necessity of the IOP. The IOP is, as per its mission statement, “a non-partisan extracurricular organization” that “aims to inspire and cultivate the next generation of political and public service leaders.”
The IOP houses four core programs: the Speaker Series and Fellows Program bring prominent members of public life to campus for conversations about current events and public life, while the Civic Engagement and Career Development programs give students opportunities to participate in public life themselves.
Most of the IOP’s events are open to all students on campus, and many are open to the general public. There is, however, a core group of students that is highly involved in the IOP, participating in all four areas of the IOP’s programming. Fourth-year Jonathan Acevedo is currently the Civic Engagement Chair on the IOP Student Advisory Board and the Civic Engagement Projects Manager. Previously, he has been an Events Ambassador, a Fellows Ambassador, and has held multiple internships funded by the IOP.
“I had always been really interested in politics, but I never had very clear exposure to it. [IOP staff] are very well-connected to their students, really value them, and want to support them,” Acevedo said.
However, there are also students who oppose the IOP for its connection to establishment politics. Shortly after the election, fourth-year Jake Bittle wrote a Viewpoints article in The Maroon arguing that the IOP should be shut down.
“The Trump supporters out in Hootenanny County may be racist, but they have a point: Washington is broken. It is full of people who do not care about us. We must work to dismantle this class at the local level by cutting off its personnel supply,” Bittle wrote at the time.
Bittle’s argument highlights the ways in which the IOP has been especially contentious post-election. This year, the IOP held events with Press Secretary Sean Spicer and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Both events were criticized by students and faculty for providing a platform for surrogates of Donald Trump.
Students and faculty gathered outside the Quadrangle Club to protest Corey Lewandowski in February 2017.
For Axelrod, the IOP has not been substantially impacted by the Trump election.
“The IOP is fundamentally a place that is committed to democracy, and this is not new to 2017,” Axelrod said.
Tensions between nonpartisanship and inclusivity, free speech and bigoted rhetoric, electoral politics and direct action, are not new to 2017, but rooted in democracy itself. The 2016 election and Trump’s presidency have only pushed this friction closer to the surface. Exploring the tensions and the way the IOP responds to them not only illuminates the IOP’s role on campus, but also gives a glimpse of what democracy looks like in the Trump era.
Axelrod, in his own words, “comes from a partisan place.” In founding the IOP, however, he aimed to leave his partisan loyalties at the door.
“The goal of the IOP was not to present a point of view or become a rallying point for any particular party, but to present a range of views and experiences to give pathways to engagement for students across the campus,” Axelrod said.
That goal begins with the IOP’s Board of Advisors, which meets twice a year to review the Institute’s operations and programming. Of the board’s 18 members, eight are Democrats and six are Republicans. IOP programming reflects similar ratios. Since the IOP first opened in the Fall of 2013, it has brought 85 Fellows to campus. These Fellows are prominent members of public life such as former elected officials, campaign managers, and journalists who hold student-only seminars and office hours over the course of a quarter. Of the 85 Fellows and former Fellows, 44 have explicit party identifications; 27 are Democrats and 17 are Republicans.
These numbers are a reflection of careful deliberation.
“One of the things we try to do with each fellows class is [to] assemble the most diverse cohort of fellows in any given quarter, and that includes diversity measured by race, gender, ethnicity, ideology, party affiliation, and sector,” Edwards said.
For IOP staff, presenting views from across the political spectrum is a prerequisite for inclusivity. Crystal Coates, the IOP’s Director of Civic and Campus Engagement, echoed Edwards’ comments.
“What we don’t want is for any student to feel like they can’t contribute or can’t participate in a program. I think that’s a big part of why we’re nonpartisan,” Coates said.
This effort has successfully attracted both liberal and conservative students to the IOP. Max Freedman is a third-year who is active with UChicago College Republicans.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship because without the College Republicans, [the IOP] stops looking nonpartisan pretty quickly. I think the College Republicans get very good access to the IOP with regards to speakers. They’ve always leveraged the Fellows Program to get people to speak to the club,” Freedman said.
The IOP has also tried to become a more inclusive place for both women and students of color. The Women in Public Service Program (WPSP) and the Leaders of Color Initiative (LoC) were created to increase diversity at the IOP and encourage leadership on campus and in the community.
However, some argue that the IOP’s commitment to nonpartisanship threatens its ability to be fully inclusive of these groups. Second-year Mary Blair, the incoming Vice Chair for LoC, said that the IOP should do more to support students of color.
“I think when you’re a person of color at the IOP and you see some of the things IOP administrators chose to do, like inviting Corey Lewandowski, it’s hard not to have a tense relationship with them. The IOP can do things that make students of color feel like they’re not welcome there,” Blair said.
A protester from the anti-Trump organization Refuse Fascism was escorted out after shouting his objections to Spicer and his employer.
This tension between nonpartisanship and inclusivity is further reflected in the confusion surrounding how much autonomy WPSP and LoC have to express political views. When asked whether groups like WPSP and LoC can make public statements about political or campus events, Edwards expressed caution.
"We try to draw a distinction between programs of the IOP and making collective statements on behalf of an entire membership group that not every member of that group signs on to. The statement of the leadership of a group doesn’t necessarily represent the full membership of that group, nor does it reflect the full institute,” Edwards said.
However, since Trump’s election, both WPSP and LoC have engaged in actions that could be construed as partisan. In January, WPSP led a group to the Chicago Women’s March, which was a response to Trump’s election. In February, LoC endorsed an on-campus solidarity march for marginalized groups in response to Trump’s first travel ban.
Some involved in the leadership of these groups believe that voicing dissent to certain stances is an essential part of engaging in politics as a woman or person of color. Katie Weibezahl, a fourth-year on WPSP’s leadership board, said that WPSP’s decision to lead a group to the Women’s March wasn’t necessarily partisan.
“There are some decisions being made by our government right now that don’t have to do with conservative or liberal ideology, but undemocratic and democratic ideologies. I don’t know if it’s necessarily partisan…to be against something that…directly harms the group that you’re a part of,” Weibezahl said.
“I think that in a lot of ways when you are a person of color, activism for you isn’t necessarily just a matter of politics…. It can be considered a matter of survival,” Blair explained.
Weibezahl stated that the discrepancy between WPSP actions and IOP staff statements is unclear.
“Maybe that is a conversation we need to have in the future, because I was under the assumption that we could have slightly more autonomy,” Weibezahl said.
On the other hand, when Blair was asked about whether LoC plans to continue engaging in direct action, she expressed less caution.
“Will the IOP have a problem with it? That’s the least of my concerns.”
In February, Lewandowski spoke at an off-the-record IOP Fellows seminar. Before the event, members of the anti-Trump coalition UofC Resists wrote a letter to Axelrod and Robert Costa, the IOP Fellow who had invited Lewandowski. The letter was endorsed by Graduate Students United, Students Working Against Prisons, UChicago Socialists, Students for Justice in Palestine, and MEChA de UChicago. This letter called for the IOP to not only disinvite Lewandowski, but also refuse to invite any members or surrogates of the current presidential administration.
For Axelrod, refusing to invite individuals due to their ideologies amounts to censorship and threatens free speech.
“The danger you get into is when you begin to censor points of view. That can flip around in very treacherous ways, given the politics of the moment or who the president is,” Axelrod said.
When asked whether he would support speakers like political scientist Charles Murray or white supremacist Richard Spencer being invited to campus, Axelrod was speculative.
“So, who should draw up the list of people who shouldn’t be invited? Should we draw up a panel on campus to just say ‘here are the 100 people who shouldn’t come to the IOP?’”
Others involved with the IOP argued for the benefits of dialogue.
“We leave here interacting with people necessarily who are different ideologically than we are and that forces us to hone our views and maybe change them. People who are involved in certain activist circles never meet or discuss politics in a real way with somebody outside their circle…and they don’t have to experience the personal development that we do,” Freedman said.
“I very much associate myself with what [commentator] Van Jones said while he was here, that our job is to keep you all safe from physical harm, but it’s not to keep you safe from ideas you find objectionable. We want you to be strong, not safe, from those ideas and engage in that contest of ideas,” Axelrod said.
For UofC Resists, bringing certain speakers to campus is a matter of physical harm.
The letter argued that bringing speakers like Spicer and Lewandowski to campus normalized Trump’s ideologies by implying such positions were not only “debatable, but legitimate and respectable.”
“Since the beginning of Trump’s campaign, our own campus has been visited more than once by white supremacists…To invite a parade of Trump surrogates… sends a positive signal to white supremacists that they are welcome here. This exposes the most vulnerable members of our community to even greater risk,” they wrote.
Osita Nwanevu A.B. ’15, M.P.P. ’16, an editorial assistant for Slate, points out that groups throughout history, including conservative groups, have argued that certain ideologies are not enriching to discuss.
“I think it’s entirely legitimate for any political group on campus, any ideological group to make the case that any speaker is beyond the pale, for any reason. They just have to make the case, have to justify it, as any other protest tactic would be justified.”
For Coates, the Lewandowski event was an educational experience for students, regardless of where they stood on the political spectrum.
“I asked [a student], ‘What did you think?’ And she said, ‘You know, I don’t know how I feel about it, but I’m glad I came.’ I knew that she was fundamentally opposed to the Trump administration and many of the things Lewandowski represented, but giving her the opportunity to hear it from his mouth, and to process it, and to figure out what she feels about it, I think that’s the important thing. It’s a relevant conversation because it’s happening, and I think we’d be doing our students a disservice if we didn’t give our students the chance to be involved.”
Coates noted that many students were confused after the presidential election.
“The general tenor I’ve heard is a lot of students saying, ‘I want to do something, I just don’t know what or where or how.’ To me, that’s where our programs need to react, providing them with the resources to find those answers for themselves,” Coates said.
For IOP staff, allowing students to find answers for themselves means providing them with a variety of ways to learn about civic and political engagement.
“We want to encourage students interested in political careers in all sorts of ways, whether that’s running for office, policy analyst, or organizing and being an activist,” Edwards said.
The IOP is known on campus for its speaker series events, fellows seminars, and funded internships at government agencies and think tanks. These are opportunities that primarily interest individuals pursuing careers in traditional politics—elected positions in national government, campaign work, and positions at think tanks.
The IOP, however, has a growing number of civic engagement programs focused on direct service. The Shriver Program for Leadership in Public Service, for example, is a cohort of students who create and implement a public service program in a South Side community. In New Americans UChicago, students tutor individuals who are preparing for the citizenship exam. TechTeam students work together on technology-based projects for nonprofits and government organizations.
According to Coates, this civic engagement programming is expected to grow over the next school year.
“There have been plenty of ideas, and our big challenge now is finding a venue to collect all of that information and figure out what we can actually accomplish over the next academic year.”
The Civic Engagement team is also working on a new policy for the next academic year which will require all civic engagement programs at the IOP to offer some component of direct service or direct action.
Despite the IOP’s stated commitment to providing public service opportunities outside of traditional electoral politics, there remain many ways in which it has not, and perhaps cannot, be supportive of alternative forms of political action.
This is especially true of community organizing and direct action. Of the 85 Fellows and Former Fellows, 31 have been political operatives (advisors, campaign managers, and the like), 27 have been journalists, 20 have been elected government officials, and only 3 have been activists.
The IOP’s stance on free speech and protest seems, in many ways, incompatible with the goals of direct action.
“We think protest is an important part of the tradition of political participation in this country, system, and on this campus, and we support students who want to be active in public life using the forms of organizing and protest to get their point across… At the same time, we also believe that there are important spaces that should be available to students who wish to discuss, enquire, and probe deeply. That too is an important part of our political tradition in this country and tradition of rigorous inquiry on this campus,” Edwards said.
This stance translates to the IOP supporting student protests as long as they do not disrupt the ability of an event to continue as planned. Coates, who oversaw Community Service RSOs at the University Community Service Center before working at the IOP, has seen many student protests on campus. In her opinion, the protest at the Lewandowski event went as well as it could possibly have gone.
“There was the protest outside and protesters inside. We’d asked for them not to come inside, but as soon as they stood up and demonstrated, the Deans on Call tapped them on the shoulder and they left. The event continued and students asked a lot of sharp, smart questions of the speakers. Everybody got to see different sides of the same issues and different opinions interacting, and I think that’s the goal,” Coates said.
Allowing everybody to see different sides of the same issues may be the IOP’s goal, but that’s not necessarily the goal of direct action, which usually tries to get a single message across through escalation. Elizabeth Adetiba and Stephanie Greene, fourth years in the college, defended this goal in their op-ed in support of Black Lives Matter protesters who shut down an IOP event with Anita Alvarez in 2016.
“Activists in the Civil Rights Movement not only utilized boycotts to get their message across but also engaged in numerous acts of civil disobedience. Shutting down a publicly elected official who attempted to use her political power to deny justice for a victim of police brutality is akin to staging sit-ins at lunch counters to bring down oppressive Jim Crow segregation,” they wrote.
For Axelrod, however, shutting down events that host controversial figures like Anita Alvarez is a form of censorship in itself.
“Far better if people have strongly held views, far better to challenge the speaker on the merits of their ideas or on the essence of their views than to not let them speak.”
The incompatibility of Axelrod’s view with the tactics of direct action suggests that the IOP, despite its attempts, cannot be neutral with regards to forms of political engagement. Supporting dialogue above other kinds of political discourse necessarily leaves out certain ways of engaging in civic life. This is especially relevant in 2017, when events like the Women’s March and the March for Science have introduced so many young Americans to protest as a form of politics for the first time.
When the Class of 2017 graduates in June, it will be the first class to graduate with the IOP as a presence on campus for its entire undergraduate career. As classes of undergraduates enter and leave with the IOP as a campus fixture throughout, it will be easy to forget just how new the IOP is. Steve Edwards describes the IOP as a “startup,” a place where the programming is constantly evolving in response to student feedback.
“I think that everybody on the Student Advisory Board knows that the staff at the IOP has an open door and whether we want to talk about feedback, positive or negative, or ideas or suggestions, or to talk about how something was received on campus, that we can go knock on the door and just sit down and chat with them, and they’re very receptive about that,” fourth-year Conor McDonough said.
Nevertheless, the description of the IOP as a “startup” can sound surprising for many students who believe the IOP is far too established and anchored in its stances. The handful of times students have criticized or protested IOP events, Axelrod and the rest of the IOP staff have consistently argued for nonpartisanship and free speech over other student concerns. Earlier this year, students from the IOP’s civic engagement programs met with Edwards, Coates, and Axelrod to discuss the IOP’s programming during the Trump era. In Blair’s opinion, Axelrod seemed argumentative.
“He would interrupt students, talk over students. It didn’t seem like he was listening to understand, he was listening to respond, and that was enough for me to see that he really has no interest in what students have to say,” Blair said.
The IOP may not often seem like a startup, but it has shown the capacity to evolve. For Weibezahl, the IOP has changed immensely over the past four years.
“[During my] first year, I found it very difficult to find my way in and make the right connections, but when WPSP and LoC started, it created a space for a more diverse student body to get involved. My favorite moment was when we had our Winter Institute during this winter quarter. [Seeing] women spread all through the first floor of the IOP just talking to each other and laughing, it was a very beautiful moment.”
Blair, on the other hand, is cautiously optimistic in the IOP’s ability to change.
“I know I sound very critical of the IOP considering how involved I am there, but I think because I am involved there, I will continue to be critical.”