National think tank gets U of C chapter

By Lokchi Lam

The U of C chapter of the Roosevelt Institution, a progressive national network of student think tanks, was launched yesterday evening at an Ida Noyes reception.

The Institution, founded by Stanford University students in January 2005, aims to “get student ideas into the public discourse,” according to its website. There are currently 120 semi-autonomous chapters on college campuses nationwide.

The U of C chapter consists of nine centers, each with a team of students focusing on a different issue. The centers will produce policy papers at the end of every quarter as well as editorials for local newspapers, said John Lee, a third-year in the College and president of the new chapter.

The best student policy papers from across the country will be published bi-annually in the Institution’s journal, the Roosevelt Review, which is then sent to “the desks of reporters, civil servants, and politicians,” according to the website.

The nine centers focus on democracy, education, environmental policy, international development, international peace and security, poverty and economic opportunity, public health, science and technology, and urban development. Additional centers are planned for race and immigration and for business.

The Institution was founded as a reaction to right-wing dominance in the country, Lee said.

“The right is very professionalized, so it’s hard for the left to compete,” he said. “Let’s face it, the Republicans tend to be more homogeneous than the left. I think that we can come up with a unified platform.”

The Institution serves as a conduit to policy makers for ideas that students are already generating in school, he said.

“In the academic community, it sits in the filing cabinet, whereas we want to get it published so that something comes of it,” Lee said. “Too often there’s that kind of disjoint between the academic community and the real world.”

“It’s the perfect marriage,” said Hollie Russon-Gilman, a second-year in the College and director of the Center on Public Health. “The American people crave innovative ideas, and who better to provide these ideas?”

“I think your average kid in college is so much more intelligent than your average policy maker,” said Adam Lebovitz, a fourth-year in the College and director of the Center on Urban Development. “Representative democracy tends toward mediocrity.”

The Institution, a little over a year old, faces considerable challenges in achieving its stated goal of influencing public policy.

“The challenge will be whether this organization can produce ideas of sufficient power to interest other organizations, other political parties, or other mainstream think-tanks to pick up those ideas,” said John Hansen, a speaker at the event and dean of the Social Sciences Division. “It’s going to need a strength of ideas.”

Terry Clark, another speaker and professor of Sociology, suggested a less ambitious approach.

“I think it’s more realistic to change the way people think about policy rather than actually changing policy,” he said in an interview. “Students who don’t sit in D.C. and who don’t know anybody on the policy committee aren’t in a very good position to write legislation.”

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, another speaker and assistant professor in political science at the University, seemed to disagree. “Why shouldn’t it be true that this could have a huge impact?” she said in an interview.

“I’m excited about it,” Harris-Lacewell said. “In my mind, it’s always young people who write the policy and initiate the work. Old people are pretty much useless.”