Just for the Record

Campus speakers—like former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski—ought to be accountable and on the record.

By Maroon Editorial Board

The University of Chicago Institute of Politics (IOP) is hosting Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager turned CNN commentator, for an “off the record/closed to press” talk with winter IOP fellow and Washington Post reporter Bob Costa on February 15. It should be on the record.

Off-the-record contact with politicos is a tradition at the IOP and organizations like it, going back to the founding of Harvard’s IOP in 1969. This tradition doesn’t fit at the University of Chicago, however, which has long valued rigorous, accountable debate over the grooming of its students for glittering careers.

The phrase “off the record” is a term used by journalists with their sources to denote that information will not be published. The IOP, of course, is not at heart a media organization. It tries to expose young people to the world of politics, and by excluding reporters—the thinking goes—students and fellows can engage in a more free and intimate dialogue. Indeed, a spokesperson said that the IOP designates all fellows seminars is off the record in order to make them like “discussion-based seminars.”

It’s probably true that an occasional student might be too intimidated by the possibility of press attention to participate in the conversation. For better or worse, it’s also conceivable that fellows—or in the case of Lewandowski, a fellow’s guest—might say something at an off-the-record event that they wouldn’t want quoted in a newspaper.

While it’s important to foster intimate conversation between political players and students, the IOP has a greater responsibility to facilitate the accountability of invited speakers.

To see how the IOP can help hold speakers accountable by giving students the opportunity to ask questions on the record, we only have to look back a few weeks to the event with Sean Spicer.

Spicer told students: “I don’t think any communicator worth their salt can tell a lie.” That video resurfaced when Spicer, at a January 21 press conference, lied about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd, the number of people who used public transit that day, and more. It wouldn’t have surfaced if the event had been off the record.

Lewandowski, for similar reasons, is a uniquely bad guest to take off the record. It does not make sense for the IOP to put him in a room with students and remove the most powerful check on inappropriate behavior: the ability of the press to make it known to the public. He ran an influential campaign that stretched the truth and flat-out lied countless times. We know this because he was on the record when he did so, and the media documented it.

It’s also hard to justify why any fellows seminar should be off-the-record. During an off-the-record seminar, a fellow or a guest can do or say anything, and everyone in the room has to pretend like it never happened.

Imagine a scenario: a professor stops her lecture and tells her students that the following conversation is just between them. The professor then proceeds to wander along the contentious edges of her discipline. An economist accounts for differences in global development through a purported difference in racial IQ; a philosopher says violent revolution against the Trump regime is obligatory. Go a step forward: it’s now university policy to keep every lecture off the record, lest professors be kept from relaying their secret knowledge without contradiction. Universities don’t—or shouldn’t—try to shield the ideas they foster from bruising debate.

While seminar conversations may not be quite as relaxed on the record, students can still intimately engage with fellows at their weekly scheduled office hours, free from press.

Almost a year ago, a protest prevented Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez from speaking at the IOP. David Axelrod, the IOP’s director, responded in stirring tones: “One of the missions of the IOP is to bring people from across the political spectrum to air their ideas and make their cases. We believe our students and the larger community are thoughtful enough to evaluate what they hear, ask probing questions, and make their own judgments.”

The Institute of Politics can host whomever it wants, under whatever conditions it chooses to set. It’s their living room (or auditorium, or whatever). But by allowing a set of speakers to retreat from public scrutiny, the IOP risks becoming a chummy club-room for future politicians, rather than the admirable, invigorating forum Axelrod defended in the letter quoted above.

—The Maroon Editorial Board

Editor’s Note: Jamie Ehrlich recused herself from the writing and editing of this editorial due to her previous reporting on controversies involving speakers at the Institute of Politics.