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Approximately 100 Harvard students sat down with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at Institute of Politics fellow Scott Jennings’s off-the-record study group on Wednesday afternoon.
During his short visit to campus, McConnell also met with Harvard administrators, including University President Drew G. Faust, Dean of the Kennedy School Douglas W. Elmendorf, and IOP Director Mark D. Gearan ’78, according to Jennings.
“Frankly, he shook a lot of hands today. He got a real good sort of education about what’s going on at the Kennedy School, and what’s going on at Harvard in general,” Jennings said.
McConnell was persuaded to take a trip to Harvard by “a fortunate confluence” of “happy involvement over the years, my being here, and what I’d like to think was a persuasive invitation,” Jennings said.
Jennings, who held senior positions in McConnell’s campaigns in 2002, 2008, and 2014, said he has actually known McConnell since 1995, when Jennings was a high school junior participating in a leadership program with McConnell’s daughter.
“It was an honor to have him on campus,” he said. “It will definitely be the most special moment and memory that I take away from my fellowship here.”
Wednesday did not mark the first time McConnell and Faust have sat down together. During her presidency, Faust has traveled to Washington several times to meet with McConnell and other top lawmakers. Faust recently publicly called on McConnell to repeal the newly passed tax on university endowments and to keep protections for undocumented immigrants.
Jennings declined to comment on what McConnell discussed with administrators Wednesday.
Wednesday formed McConnell’s first time speaking at an Institute of Politics event, according to Emily M. Hall ’18, who helps organize Scott Jennings’s IOP study groups. McConnell’s wife—Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, a graduate of the Business School—served as a senior advisory board member of the IOP from 2002 until accepting her cabinet position.
McConnell’s talk with students at the study group, which took place at the Malkin Penthouse at the Kennedy School, was a closed event. Students had to enter a lottery for a chance to win one of the available seats.
“It was the right call to lottery,” Hall said. “There’s a lot more interest than we have space.”
Jennings called McConnell’s visit the “crown jewel” of his study group outline.
“One of the most satisfying things to me was there were several students from Kentucky, including a couple of people who went to his high school alma mater in Louisville,” Jennings said. “And they’re now students at Harvard.”
One of the goals of the IOP study groups, Hall said, is to provide students with unique opportunities to engage with political figures “in a really close setting, which is something that we don’t often get.”
“I got the chance to talk to him one-on-one. He went around the room during the reception beforehand and when he was signing books. So I got to talk to him a bit about Alaskan politics,” Kiera E. O’Brien ’20, president of the Harvard Republican Club, said. “I just really appreciated his candor. ”
Catherine H. Ho ’21, who attended the event, said she thought many of the questions Jennings posed while he was leading the discussion were “things that people have asked” in the past.
“If you’re going to make it ‘off-the-record,’ I expect the conversation to be a lot more robust and candid,” Ho said.
Ho said she wished more time had been dedicated to student questions. “There were so many questions left to be answered,” she added, noting there were still many raised hands when the last question was called.
Devontae A. Freeland ’19, president of the Harvard College Democrats, said he thinks it is important to note the event was not a forum for students to challenge speakers, but was “largely supposed to be an instructive model.”
“The idea is about teaching people about experiences in politics,” he said. “In that way, even though I disagree with almost everything Mitch McConnell stands for, I still think that there is something I can learn about his experience.”
Ho and Freeland both said there were students from across the political spectrum present in the room.
“If anything stood out to me today, it was the ability to have civil discourse on campus between students of all political ideologies,” Freeland said.
—Staff writer Simone C. Chu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @simonechu_.
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