Gephardt panel series to educate student voters, spur debate
In an effort to educate student voters and stir political discussion and debate on campus, the Gephardt Institute of Public Service developed a new weekly programming series called “Issues and Ideas: Election 2012.”
During each of the seven weeks between the Gephardt Institute’s voter registration drive on September 18 and election week in November, the series will highlight a different issue in national politics.
The central programming event of the series is a weekly panel discussion on Thursday nights, launched last week with a discussion called “Media and Politics.”
Beginning in March of last semester, junior Adam Flores, program intern at the Gephardt Institute, worked with Robin Hattori, the Institute’s assistant director, to develop the Issues and Ideas series. From a long list of topics, the two worked to narrow the list to those topics they deemed most important and interesting for student voters.
Topics to be discussed in the series include energy and the environment, the economy, LGBT rights, healthcare, foreign policy and national security, and religion.
“Our goal is to make sure students have as much information available to them as possible,” Flores said. “A lot of it is trying to create this atmosphere on campus where we can approach each other in a very civilized manner and have a very civilized dialogue, while at the same time creating a very educated population on campus.”
As in previous election years, the Gephardt Institute pooled funding with Student Union, resulting in a total of $12,500 that students, faculty and staff can apply to receive for use on political or election-related programming.
According to Vice Chancellor for Students and Dean of Campus Life Jill Carnaghi, the idea of “issue weeks” originated during the 2000 presidential election, when student leaders came together to promote more discussion and debate on campus. The event has continued each election year since.
“There’s a history here since 2000 of student leaders and Student Union working with various staff and faculty to kind of raise the bar as students learn more about the issues, and to bring experts on the various topics, from Wash. U. as well as the St. Louis area to come and talk on panels, etc. So that’s been really fun and educational over the years,” Carnaghi said.
Compared with recent presidential election years, though, encouraging student involvement and enthusiasm has been more of a challenge, Hattori said.
“This time around I think for me, the challenge was knowing that, without a debate on campus, and also with it being a reelection, the excitement around Obama’s candidacy feels a little bit different this time. So, I think going into it, I kind of knew we weren’t going to be able to achieve the same level of programming or excitement that we did before, but we wanted to try to still give those opportunities for people,” she said.
Though the Institute initially hoped to encourage student groups to put on events related to a particular topic during that topic’s “issue week,” they’ve had difficulty with that aspect of the original plan.
“Up until now, we haven’t been that successful in attracting very many student groups for events related to the election,” Flores said. He attributes that difficulty to the coincidence of the election season with the beginning of the school year, when student groups are still getting settled in and working on events and programming that were planned and budgeted during last semester.
Faculty members have been slightly more responsive to the Gephardt Institute’s initiative.
Arts and Sciences Dean Matthew Devoll partnered with Nate Rosenblum in Residential Life to organize three “Dinner by the Dozen” events, corresponding with three of the issue weeks proposed by the Gephardt Institute. The dinners offer 12 sophomores across the five colleges the opportunity to meet with a faculty member and Career Center representative to discuss the week’s theme topic over dinner.
“The idea is to invite the sophomores to come and to have an open, fun, dynamic discussion with a faculty member and a Career Center advisor about the issue of the day, but also to be able to walk away from the dinner with some ideas of courses or majors or minors that they could take, as well as internships or possible careers that they could pursue that [are] related to the topic,” Devoll said.
Hattori said she hopes the Institute can promote more programming efforts by faculty and students alike as they continue to receive funding applications. She is currently reviewing applications from the Inter-Beliefs Council, Washington University Political Review and Association of Latin American Students for program funding.
Flores noted that student groups that have become involved in the Gephardt series have helped to keep the panel discussions balanced and diverse.
“Who I think would be ideal, someone else would think is not exactly the right fit. So a lot of it is collaborating with other people in other positions in groups and departments on campus to figure out who would really be a good fit for the panel.”
Hattori stressed the importance of political engagement, emphasizing her hope that the University’s campus becomes a more politically dynamic atmosphere.
“Not everyone likes politics or feels like it’s germane to their life. Or people get sick of it because it’s on the news all the time. But really, the research shows that people who talk about politics with their peers or with their family are more likely to vote, they’re more likely to be involved in their communities, and that’s really what the goal of the Gephardt Institute is, is to get people, in some way to be engaged in the process,” Hattori said.
“I would like to go to it if I have time. There are a lot of issues that I feel like I don’t know that much about. I feel like a lot of this election’s been focused on the social aspects, and at least I haven’t really followed the economic side of it, which I’d like to know more about,” junior Rachel Blake said.