IOP Deals With A Year of Change

When former Sen. David H. Pryor became the director of the Institute of Politics (IOP) in August 2000, he found it “odd” that an institution encouraging political pursuits did not elect its student leaders.

“That’s not what democracy is all about and what we teach people here is democracy,” Pryor says.

In November of that year, Pryor decided it was time to address the decreasing student participation. He suddenly announced that the IOP would dissolve its governing student body and hold open elections—startling its leaders, who were already trying to institute reforms.

“I kept hearing from students that they looked at the IOP as a very closed society or a ‘club,’” Pryor says. “I sensed that we had to open it up as much as possible to make everyone feel welcomed.”

Though the move was surprising and left some students bitter, over a year later both staff and student leaders say the restructuring has been largely successful.

“I am happy with improvement I’ve seen over the past year, but I wish it could have occurred in a more collaborative process from the start rather than being forced upon the students,” says former IOP President Robert F. McCarthy ’02.

Pryor says he thinks it was the suddenness of the restructuring that shocked everyone.

“After some 25 years of doing things a certain way, I think a lot of people were concerned on whether it [the restructuring] could be brought about,” Pryor says. “We made a radical departure from the past and it has paid off. It has paid off in view of the participation of students, the interests and the number of people who are taking part in the IOP and its activities.”

The reorganization encouraged the elected student leadership to reevaluate how the IOP works and is perceived on campus. The Institute started recruiting first-years, established a grants board and tried to directly address student interests. The results of these efforts are clear, both students and staff say: student attendance is up, there is an increased interest in leadership positions and student-staff relations are more open.

“It [the restructuring] was kind of a breath of life into the IOP and we think it was more than long overdue,” Pryor says.

‘A Breath Of Life’

McCarthy says the restructuring has not changed how students work in the IOP—but now there are more students involved.

“An important development of the structural changes is it has allowed the IOP to clarify what its programs are, how it spends its funds and what it does,” he says.

Gordon Li, the IOP’s director of communications and outreach, says the IOP’s restructuring has made its decision-making process more transparent, attracting more students. Li estimates that 150 students attended the advisory committee to the Institute’s Forum at the beginning of the year. Even at the end the semester, when participation usually drops, 75 to 80 students were still active.

Pryor also attributes the increased participation and interest in the IOP’s activities to the “opening up” of leadership, noting the healthy competition for elected positions in committees. Others feel the restructuring has invited open discussion and criticism about the IOP.

“There have been a lot of people involved in the IOP and there is a good discussion of ideas in part prompted by elections,” says Erin B. Ashwell ’02, former member-at-large and chair of various projects. “I think that people, especially the freshmen and sophomore classes, have some really vibrant ideas and people are willing to commit more time to their IOP activities.”