President Beck encourages political engagement among students in first 2007-08 convocation address

Emily Gonzalez

In the first convocation for the 2007-2008 Lawrence University Convocation Series, President Jill Beck discussed the urgent need for political activism in students and the community in her speech, “Educating Citizens, Supporting Students’ Political Engagement and Getting out the Vote.”
Beck began by addressing the problem of the increasing political apathy among the general public, particularly among youth. She questioned whether Lawrence, as a liberal arts college, has “lived up” to the goal of promoting both politically active leaders and “just citizens” in the community.
According to Beck, research shows that only around one-third of the general public follows public affairs regularly and that among students ages 18-24 this rate is even lower.
However, Beck also acknowledged that students frequently devote time to local community work, something they see as making a “tangible” difference, as opposed to government or political involvement, which they generally view as more distant.
Beck suggested that another possible reason for the lack of political awareness among students is that college faculty “receive little incentive for going outside of their [own] areas by discussing political issues in class.”
In light of these issues, Beck questioned how we should fit “the education of citizens in our community” into a liberal arts education that typically emphasizes “the major.”
Beck also cited Provost and Dean of the Faculty David Burrows’ recent essay in which he discussed liberal education’s goal of transforming “autonomous people” into those who are “skilled and engaged” and capable of making “informed decisions.”
How then can the Lawrence community encourage “issue-oriented” voters? Especially since elections are nearing, Beck noted, “What kinds of political engagement can we expect from independent-minded people?”
Beck offered several solutions to these questions, many of which she intends to put to use this year. The president observed that a growing number of popular websites have been produced for young voters, such as Rock the Vote,, and Declare Yourself.
Beck quoted recent studies that show how these sites are increasingly “necessary to reach young voters,” as well as general research that indicates the more students discuss political issues outside of class, the more likely they will ultimately vote on Election Day.
To contribute to the growing trend of youth-based resources, Beck announced the implementation of My Election Decision, a new Web site designed by a team from Lawrence led by Arno Damerow, instructional technologist for ITS, and a team from the University of California at Irvine.
The site, which will begin this fall, is intended to help voters better understand the issues in the 2008 election. It will also organize statements and points of view without mention of specific candidates or parties. Although the site remains “blind” through its presentation of unbiased material, students may still discuss their choices of candidates with others through online forums.
Indeed, Beck stated that she is “not interested in your choice of candidate,” so much as she encourages that everyone become more politically informed.
Beck also announced that she will be leading a seminar course in both the winter and spring terms of 2008, called “President’s Seminar.” The goal of the seminar, as Beck stated, is for students “to become informed about what [their fellow] Lawrentians feel are their priorities, [and] become more multi-issue students.”
The class, a university course, will consist of 12 students who will come together with Beck to discuss and learn about the national issues at the heart of the 2008 presidential campaign and issues that are important to Lawrence groups.
The idea for this seminar course stemmed from conversations with students last spring who expressed interest in the issues that their clubs are concerned with, but noted that they feel isolated as single-issue groups.
The students felt it would be beneficial to discuss all the issues represented at Lawrence around a table. Beck will be gathering the ideas and concerns of campus groups throughout fall term.
Part of the goal of the seminar is to educate students to be more active citizens. The course takes place in the height of primary election season, what Beck calls, “a teachable time,” and thus will help Lawrentians to become politically aware.
Beck plans to bring in qualified speakers from the community to cover some of the national topics, such as healthcare, in an effort to help students understand what candidates are really saying in their debates and speeches.
Because the class size is so limited, Beck hopes to bring the discussion and ideas from the classroom out to the rest of the Lawrence community by offering discussion boards, and more simply, by encouraging conversation among students.
The My Election Decision website and President Beck’s new seminar class are just two ways in which she hopes to encourage the “liberal ideal of ensuring the future of democracy,” and getting students to “say no to apathy” while engaging in political activity.