As I begin my third year at Cornell and my third year as a columnist for the Daily Sun, I want to welcome all of you to the new semester, to the run up to the 2008 Presidential election, and to what I hope will be a semester and a year of public service and civic and political engagement for many members of the Cornell community. Cornell is uniquely suited to contribute to the national debate and by doing so, to participate in solving many of our toughest problems. The 2008 Democratic National Convention, which just concluded in Denver, affirmed the candidacy of Barack Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden. The 2008 Republican National Convention began yesterday in Minneapolis-St. Paul to affirm its presumed nominee, John McCain, and his vice presidential choice, Sarah Palin. And, of course, yesterday, the first Monday of September, was also Labor Day—a national holiday, which the U.S. Department of Labor notes, “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers…,” a day with a broad civic purpose. This is a good time to reflect on what all of us can do to contribute positively to the campus, the community, the nation and the world.
The main societal contribution made by any university, including Cornell, is in education and discovery. The importance to public policy of an educated citizenry and of well-conceived and executed research cannot be over-emphasized. In addition, all of us, no matter what our political persuasion, have a responsibility to inform ourselves about the issues, to vote our conscience in local and national elections, and engage in active citizenship.
Students have long been a force for social change throughout the world, and this is very true at Cornell. My generation, which came of age in the Sixties and early Seventies, was tied to the struggle for civil rights, the women’s movement, and even more dramatically to the Vietnam War, perhaps, in part, because of the immediacy of possible military service for those of us eligible for the draft. Cornell students, faculty, staff, and alumni were deeply engaged in those struggles, which have had enduring effects on our own campus and the world. As the Sixties/Seventies generation matured, many continued activist roles, for example, recognizing the importance of sexual orientation and disability in our personal and professional lives and effecting relevant changes in public policy.
By the time “Generation X” was in college in the early 1990s, political engagement by young people had dropped dramatically. The media described the Gen X-ers as cynical and alienated from the political process. Young voter turnout in the 2000 election was down by a third from what it had been in the 1970s. But, interestingly, although Gen X-ers apparently shunned politics, they also pioneered the involvement of young people in volunteer activities. Cornell’s Public Service Center was established in 1991 to connect students, faculty and alumni with community organizations, to affirm service as essential to active citizenship and to promote service-learning experiences that reinforce academic experiences by addressing real community needs—and it has been helping Cornellians incorporate service into their lives ever since.
Your generation has a unique opportunity to reconnect public service and political and civic engagement, especially in this Presidential election year. According to a study published last November by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), college students of your generation want to help create a better society and to effect change through social action, and they see political engagement as a natural extension of their volunteer and public service work.
Youth voting rose substantially in both 2004 and 2006, and, if predictions are to be believed, the youth vote will be up again and could be pivotal to the outcome this coming November. In 2008, according to Rock the Vote, there will be 44 million 18-29 year olds eligible to vote—one-fifth of the eligible voters. According to Rock the Vote, “more than 80% of youth who get registered end up going to the polls.”
This Saturday, September 6, the Tatkon Center, Community Center Programs and Residential Programs are sponsoring a voter registration outdoor event to motivate students to register and vote this year. JAM the Vote & the Big Red Sleepover Takeover will feature bands, voter registration booths, movie screenings, performances by Just About Music (JAM) students, dance troupes, local and regional professional bands. I will be reading the Gettysburg Address at this event, reflecting on the “power of words,” then kicking off the on-campus voter registration drive. Voter registration materials are also available in each college registrar’s office and the Day Hall information and referral desk. Those who wish to vote back in their home districts can register on the web. If you registered to vote before you left home, don’t forget to request an absentee ballot.
I hope you will participate in some of the discussions that will be taking place on campus in advance of the election. For example, on September 26, the night of the first Presidential debate, Cornell will host “McCain v. Obama in 3D: Data and Debate on Domestic Policy” in Bailey Hall. Six distinguished scholars will discuss the candidates’ proposals in three areas of domestic social policy: health policy, immigration policy and Social Security policy. The discussion will be followed by a live satellite feed of the McCain-Obama debate at the University of Mississippi, and there will be opportunities for questions from the audience before the evening telecast. The idea for this event grew out of a course in policy analysis and management that Professor Rosemary Avery has been teaching for a decade on the importance of good empirical research to the formulation of sound public policy, and it is one of many ways that we can inform ourselves about the candidates and their positions.
As critical as involvement in the election is, the hardest work will begin after November, as our new President seeks to rally the nation. After the votes are counted, no matter which candidate wins, I hope you’ll make a personal commitment not only to engage in the public service and volunteer activities that you’ve done so well and that remain so important, but also to remain engaged in the political process on campus and in the community.
It’s great to have you back. I look forward to getting to know you better, and to working with you throughout the year.
David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He can be reached at email@example.com. From David will appear monthly this semester.