Teaming up with MTV’s Rock the Vote. Holding a summit for student leaders. Staging a march on Washington to address student political concerns. All of these proposals were thrown out last week in an Institute of Politics (IOP) brainstorming session. IOP officials have said they would like to start several national projects in order to reach more young adults across the country. Though these intentions are laudable, the IOP should first focus on enriching its Harvard offerings and addressing its existing shortcomings.
Both the IOP’s student leaders and its new director, Daniel R. Glickman, have indicated a desire to move beyond Harvard’s Ivy-covered walls. But as Glickman said, such a shift would likely redirect the IOP’s financial resources away from Harvard programs. And though some students brainstormed low-cost ideas, such as replicating certain IOP programs at other colleges, any oversight given to these off-campus programs would drain the IOP’s staff and attention.
But the IOP’s move to the national scene seems more inappropriate because it has not yet mastered the essence of politics here at Harvard. Interestingly enough, an IOP survey aiding this national initiative indicates that students around the nation are more interested in public service and improving the lives of others through community service than through political participation. Yet, to serve and improve the lives of others is, or at least should be, the point of political involvement. And it should also be the essence of programs sponsored by the IOP. But, while some IOP programs (like study groups) are worthwhile and there is a place for high-powered political speakers, other programs too often get bogged down in ineffective committee meetings and uncomfortable formality.
To more faithfully serve its mission, the IOP should focus its on-campus programs more on substance and less on the shallow side of politics. Formal events, while they admittedly play a role in today’s schmooze-filled political scene, do little to promote the goal of politics. In their place should come more programs that engage the Harvard community by informing and discussing serious issues in a productive way, with the potential to effect change. Instead of just reacting to issues, those organizing these programs could pro-actively formulate issues to discuss.
The IOP presently caters to a narrow subset of Harvard’s population—those who are interested in becoming politicians—and does little to encourage widespread student involvement. The change in election procedures for student leaders has reduced the clubby atmosphere somewhat, but increased outreach to student groups and Houses would go even further to address this concern. Were the IOP to establish student outreach coordinators in each House, open to suggestions and useful for mobilizing House political involvement, undergraduates could more easily find a venue for political involvement.
Given its assets and limitations, the IOP must first enhance its own on-campus political programs before going national. Leading by example in Cambridge is the best way the IOP can influence national student political participation.
Dissent: Export IOP's Success to All
We should laud the Institute of Politics’ (IOP) new initiative to expand nationally. This is just another commendable way the IOP is trying to realize its mission of fostering political activism in college students. The IOP is already replete with dinners, speakers and substantive events at which Harvard students can discuss serious issues in a productive way. Programs invite students to engage in weekly and informal discussions on pressing political issues. Student-lead policy groups develop detailed policy proposals that have even been presented in Washington in the past. The IOP lets world leaders speak directly to students about the issues of the day—and then insists that they respond to student questions. High profile media and government officials come to Harvard for semester-long fellowships to generate in-depth discussions with students on significant political issues. The Harvard Political Review stirs debate by publishing a political magazine and the internships program helps to place Harvard students in the policy world directly. By expanding its influence to a national level, the IOP can utilize its resources to impact an even greater number of students than it does already here at Harvard.
—Lia C. Larson ’05
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