The Columbia Critic

A place to debate anything we want to. We'll talk Columbia campus issues. We'll talk up the homosexual problem. We'll talk China. And we'll talk without resorting to partisan rhetoric. We may be left. We may be right. But we aren't going to be quoting any party line. We're leading the discussion. But feel free to chime in. Hannity and Colmes this is not.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Roosevelt Institution: Thinking Big

Think Big, Really Big
By Brian Wagner

February 10, 2006

Student groups come and go—most without ever making an impact outside of their insular campuses. But beyond that limited framework, students are constantly thinking about how to enact change. The problem most students face when trying to influence the world outside their campuses is one of respect. Adults support students only so long as they don’t feel their authority and intellectual superiority is challenged. The Roosevelt Institution is in the process of doing just that.

The nation’s first student think tank, the Roosevelt Institution is the tool that students have long needed, especially those who seek to share ideas that they hope will be taken seriously outside of the undergraduate setting. Established in January 2005 by several Stanford University students, then merged with similar groups on other campuses, the Institution has grown to include 120 chapters across the nation, with a new one being added every week. A brainstorm has become a rapidly growing, sustainable phenomenon.

Convinced that student minds, when brought together, could provide policy suggestions just as­—or more—effectively than the ideas being tossed around in the public forum by their elders, undergraduates like Stanford University junior Quinn Wilhelmi chose, after the unsurprisingly rhetoric-heavy 2004 election, to venture into uncharted territory. Wilhelmi, a friend of mine from Oregon political wars, is now the organization’s executive director. He describes the think tank as, “a populist movement of young, dedicated Americans demanding to partake in not only electing candidates, but in governing our country.”

The beauty of the Roosevelt Institution is that its national staff serves only to facilitate the creation of new chapters—they do not attempt to set policy or otherwise manage local chapters. Like other national staff members, Wilhelmi doesn’t claim much credit for the Institution’s success. “All we’ve done is help weave together the network that makes our collective voice powerful.“ This decentralized system allows chapters to develop their own personalities, while still encouraging inter-chapter cooperation through the online Web site, which any chapter’s members can access.

The Columbia chapter, founded last year by Josh Lipsky, CC ’08, has maintained a low profile so far, due in large part to what Lipsky acknowledges as the difficulties of starting anything new on a student group-heavy campus like Columbia. Columbia’s small band of merry Fellows—as Roosevelt calls its members—have already issued a sexual education report for the College Democrats and a transportation study for New York City Council campaigns. With the proper administrative team and publicity machine, Lipsky should soon be able to copy the success of NYU’s chapter, which has grown to 80 people in one semester. His goal is for the chapter to become a prominent force in the debates on tuition reform at Columbia. “It’s time we join Princeton and Harvard in offering a world-class education to everyone,” Lipsky asserts. “I want Roosevelt to figure out how Columbia can afford it.” While he hopes to expand the group over the next year, his current team of fellows already meets every Wednesday evening in Lerner.

The future for chapters in New York is bright, as the Roosevelt Institution’s national team will be moving to New York this summer for its second annual summer conference, providing an opportunity for Columbia students to get involved in Roosevelt’s national brainstorming.

Since the national staff does not set policy, each campus’s members shape its policies. Wilhelmi likes to describe the Institution’s philosophy as such: “We believe think tanks ... should operate independently from current or traditional political alliances. Indeed, ideas themselves are not born of political parties but merely adopted by them.”

The impact of the Institution has yet to become apparent to anyone, including the Institution’s national staff. But imagine the possibilities for years to come: a local RI chapter writing a policy paper that could be turned into real policy by people like Michael Sessions, the 18-year-old mayor of Hillsdale, MI.

The greatest lesson the Roosevelt Institution may be able to teach, at the national and local levels, is that the intellect of a learned student can be just as valuable as that of any adult. With the respect created by an established think tank, student voice may be undergoing a new revolution which will bestow upon it newfound gravity and legitimacy in the public sphere.


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