Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) will deliver prepared speeches in Roone Arledge Auditorium at Columbia University on Thursday during the ServiceNation Presidential Forum. Unfortunately, the event displaced student and outside groups scheduled to use Lerner Hall that evening. Though the University did not organize the forum, in the future the administration should not dismiss student involvement for the sake of hosting big-name speakers, especially given that students will not be able to ask questions in a hall designated specifically for their use.
ServiceNations statement of purpose says the summit will provide an occasion for both candidates to speak in depth about their positions on service and civic engagement in a post-Sept. 11 United States. But since announcing that it would offer its auditorium to house the event, Columbia has taken few steps to include its students in the program. Only 200 of the 1,200 seats in the house will go to students, and despite the events location on a college campus, Columbia has made no effort to incorporate student voices in the presidential forum. The university has, via the World Leaders Forum, pledged to serve as a center for public discussion and debate on the large economic, political, social and cultural questions of our time, but the ServiceNation event seems poised to fall short of that promise.
In the future, the university should demand that outside organizations give Columbia students the right to interact with the dignitaries they bring to campus. Because ServiceNation is nonpartisan, its no surprise that there will be no debate between McCain and Obama. Nevertheless, allowing Columbia students to directly submit prescreened questions for the two candidates could elucidate key differences between each candidates policies on national service while involving the campus.
Unfortunately, the university moved a Doctors Without Borders event from Roone Arledge to a new facility, even after the organization paid for the venue and arranged for guests transportation. While this is understandable under the circumstances, the university effectively displaced one of the worlds most highly respected humanitarian service organizations in favor of showboating with political candidates ironic when the candidates are speaking about public service. Perhaps the use of Levien Gymnasium would have offered not only more space, but less shuffling of organizations and interests that the university has implicitly signaled are of less importance.
Finally, the candidates themselves should take advantage of their setting to show their willingness to interact with the leaders of tomorrow. Even if the presidential hopefuls insisted upon screening questions prior to the forum, it would be advantageous for their political images to show responsiveness to student inquiries and commentary. Candidates whose campaign speeches include sound bites like I dont work for myself, I work for you and This election has never been about me, its been about you should be happy to show the next generation the meaning behind the words.
Though hosting the ServiceNation event is, on the whole, bringing a good kind of attention to the university, Columbia was too willing to give up all control of the event procedures. Indeed, the university does its students a disservice when it lowers its standards for intellectual dialogue by pandering to public image. The university should have worked harder to include its students in the event and to emulate ServiceNations goals, instead of giving the appearance of angling its name into the media spotlight.