Newspapers and critics lambasted Columbia University this past week when it hosted Iranian President Mamoud Ahmadinejad in a question-and-answer style lecture. But despite the heavy-handed criticism, the speech drew a crowd of more than 800 students, with thousands of others protesting outside.
The controversy regarding Ahmadinejad is beside the point; no matter how you slice it, Columbia has been doing a terrific job of sparking political interest among its students. The Iranian president was just one of many notable speakers coming to Columbia this September as part of its annual World Leaders Forum, which has been going on since 2003.
Watching the various headlines and news stories regarding the Iranian President made me think of St. John’s. What has our University been doing to foster a political atmosphere?Apparently, not much.
Just a week prior to the controversial Columbia lecture, 80 St. John’s students packed into the tiny Donovan Community Room on the Queens campus for the University’s Constitution Day Debate, one of the highlights of the Fall Lecture Series in which members of College Democrats debated the issues with College Republicans.
While members of College Democrats found the 80-person turnout encouraging, I view it as downright insulting. For a campus that holds thousands of undergraduate students, shouldn’t the Constitution Day Debate have drawn a bigger crowd?
College students have long been criticized for their political apathy, and rightfully so. But they are not entirely to blame. Universities throughout America, including St. John’s, deserve just as much criticism.
It would be unfair to compare St. John’s to Columbia University; we severely lack the funds and prestige to draw the likes of controversial world leaders. But, given St. John’s great ethnic and socio-economic diversity, the University has the potential to be one of the most politically active colleges in America.
St. John’s needs to do everything it can to foster a greater appreciation for the political issues of the day on campus, and they should start by prioritizing organizations such as College Democrats and Republicans.
Last year, College Democrats attempted to host a screening of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” in the Little Theater, a fairly large venue St. John’s often uses for films. However, according to a member of the College Democrats, two days before the event, the University lost certain paperwork and forced the organization to show the movie on a smaller projection screen in a tiny Bent Hall lecture room.
This, along with the low turnout for the Constitution Day Debate, are clear-cut signs that the University needs to pay more attention to its political organizations.
Cornel West, who spoke at Carnesecca Arena (then Alumni Hall) back in 2003, was one of the last prominent political scholars to speak at St. John’s. His lecture drew a crowd of more than 1,000 students and faculty members.
With a Presidential election only a year away, now is the best time for the University to bring another speaker, comparable to West, for the lecture series. And, while the Constitution Day Debate is a great idea, it should not be the only politically-charged event on the Fall Lecture Series lineup.
The University is currently using tuition money to fund a free Gym Class Heroes concert in October, and another free concert during Homecoming Weekend. These are great ideas to bolster student life, but shouldn’t just as much money be spent on the lecture series to ensure dynamic and noteworthy speakers? A year from now, Columbia will most likely be holding another World Leaders Forum, possibly generating just as much controversy – and publicity – as this year’s. With a little work, St. John’s could follow in its example, and give more to students than just a free concert.