Nexus of Politics and Society? Maybe Next Time

Lori Graham, 9/28.19

On September 19th 2019, Radford University students, staff, and faculty (as well as surrounding community guests) came together for the inaugural Highlander Discovery Initiative event. An engaging discussion involving the renowned Katie Couric, journalist and national public figure, as the moderator was promised. On the panel of discussion was Donna Brazille and Ana Navarro, both engaging and intelligent women whom each have a long resume in the political realm as well. The stage is set with the Republican, Navarro, on one side and Democrat, Brazille, on the other for a debate concerning the polarization of our country. The goal in this debate is immediately established to the audience however, as one of civility and a “let’s just all get along” attitude. Initially, it seems that everyone is on board with bringing a truce to the dueling sides of our country. However, did the event meet the expectations of modeling a quiet discussion of major topics of conflict creating a civil upheaval in our country, or were the opposing sides not all that opposing? Whim wanted to get the perspective of attendees and see how the event impacted them.

(Politics are an emotional and difficult topic for many people, therefore in polling names were kept anonymous in order to obtain a more honest response.)

Did you feel the Discovery Initiative event was effective? Did the event address the political polarization of our country?

“I felt the two speakers were of the same mindset it seemed. A little more contrast in ideas would have been better.” Graduate student

“They [the panel] beat around the bush a lot. I felt the older age group was able to relate more to the discussion. Some of the younger generation that came may not have been familiar with some of the questions.” Sophomore student

“I felt they addressed the polarization, but they didn’t put it out there as being clear to the meaning. Also, more people would have gone if they knew about the issues and details of the event.” Sophomore student

“With events like this, we have attendance because people like to see the polarization—people pitted against each other. This was something that surprised people. It was civil, level-headed conversation. This was representative of what people are really doing. We are not as polarized as people think.” Graduate student

“I am a little bit more politically cognizant and civilly aware than students might be, so it’s hard for me to judge. I have heard some say that it wasn’t really clear that there was a lot of polarization between those two on the stage, and maybe that was part of the point. Donna Brazille was saying some things that maybe you expected from the right and Ana Navarro was saying some things you would expect from a Democrat. But a colleague of mine was saying, that if you have students that maybe do not know the difference between a Republican and Democrat, we do have students as Freshmen who don’t, they would have left confused because there was not a lot of difference between those women on the stage.” Faculty member

According to those polled, the event was on the right track for thought-provoking and respectful discussion of our most heated topics of concern in this country, but it fell short of the intended impact on our campus community. First- and second-year undergraduate students that are not either politically involved or taking a major that incorporates political discussion may not be up-to-speed on the problems facing our nation. The event spoke more to the older generation on campus and the surrounding community, and the panel participants were not addressing the student culture. Where are the younger, politically active journalists, political advocates, and campaign contributors that can connect to Radford University’s students? No offense to our panel, but many of the students’ responses were, “Who’s Katie Couric?”

 Additionally, some of those polled that did not attend the event out of a lack of information surrounding just what the discussion was focused on. Some stated that they wished they had known because they would have really loved to hear Katie Couric and the panel’s discussion, but unfortunately, advertising did not reach all the students. Many students report that they do not read campus event emails and simply delete them before opening.

Lastly, a topic of contention amongst attendees was also the cost of the initiative. Faculty, staff, and students as well as the community commented, how could RU spend so much money on one event? Specifically, the cost of Katie Couric alone, to ask a few questions on our Radford University stage, came to a grand total of $195,000, which did not include additional funds Radford University had to pay for private jet transportation and other accommodations. Navarro and Brazile were paid $25,000 each, according to Radford University’s student run newspaper The Tartan.

Of those on campus that were asked the question, “Do you think Katie Couric’s performance merited the cost and should Brazille and Navarro been paid much less?” there was a resounding “no”. Some even thought that, although Katie was an award-winning journalist at one time, the other two panelists were far more engaging and involved in the discussion and should have been paid more than Couric.

“They [Brazille and Navarro] carried the conversation. Yes, we know Katie’s work but Donna and Ana both have done great things too. . . to be paid $195,000 and other expenses, yes, she was a headliner and moderator, but she spoke very little. I respect her but it did not warrant the cost.” Graduate student

In the end, everyone is open to many more of these types of events and welcomes them, even encourages them, on our campus. Students want to know what is happening as well as in a forum they can participate in, not feel the conversation is only one of the older crowds. As a faculty member pointed out, this event has opened additional conversations that students are wanting to have with administration. The question remains, is administration willing to converse with the students on important topics impacting their college campus?