January 20, 2012

Canceling the party

New Institute of Politics provides welcome public service opportunities but should avoid partisanship.

David Axelrod, the former Senior Adviser to President Barack Obama, announced yesterday the creation of a new Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. Intended to, in his words, “inspire young people to go into a public arena,” the Institute’s goals include providing students with internship and job opportunities in politics and journalism, as well as bringing well-known speakers and fellows to campus. Though some doubts have already arisen, its aims are admirable. This addition to campus life, if implemented correctly, will serve to fulfill a long-standing need for many students.

Many have expressed concerns regarding partisan bias. Axelrod is, after all, a high-profile Democrat and a key figure in Obama’s re-election campaign. Some students worry that the Institute will only provide jobs at liberal publications or for Democratic politicians. This worry, however, is over-blown; though Axelrod is a liberal DemoExcrat, many on the Institute’s advisory board are decidedly not, including New York Times columnist David Brooks and Republican strategist Mike Murphy. Axelrod has also emphasized that the Institute will strive to remain non-partisan, so there’s little reason for concerns over it becoming a training ground for future Democratic politicians.

However, adding a place on campus specifically designed to break students into the public sphere does, to some extent, go against the image the University of Chicago has cultivated for so long as an institution. Few universities are as steadfast in their (critics would add “ivory tower”) intellectualism as ours, so concerns about the Institute’s existence in such a place deserve some recognition. Critics could easily say that it is flying in the face of what the University stands for.

It’s hard to view this as a major problem though. For one thing, institutions change. Over time our student body’s career options have become slightly more complicated than “academia” versus “not academia.” Given the mostly positive reaction to the Institute’s creation, public service is, for many students, a desirable career option. Furthermore, it’s clear that present offerings in this area do not do nearly enough to satisfy student demands for jobs and internships. And this is without mentioning peer institutions like Harvard, who go much farther in encouraging student involvement in politics through the Kennedy School of Government, which has its own Institute of Politics.

Time will tell whether we should be concerned about partisanship, but for now the creation of this Institute is a welcome change to our campus and ultimately one more sign of the changing interests of our student body.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and an additional Editorial Board member.