A Living Political Monument

In the years immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy ’40, LL.D. ’56, a group of the president’s closest advisers and family members sought to establish a “living monument” in his honor that would foster meaningful political involvement for future generations of Harvard students. Forty years later, that monument, the Institute of Politics (IOP), still grapples with the same mission—how to instill a sense of civic responsibility in young people and offer channels for political discussion and research—but it uses new tools to face twenty-first-century challenges.

Under the leadership of former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, the IOP (which is affiliated with and located within the Kennedy School of Government) will celebrate its ruby anniversary this September with fanfare and continued commitment to the ideals and programs that have made it a hub of political association at Harvard. (For details, see www.iop.harvard.edu/events_40th.php.)

Besides its practical services, such as offering voter registration for incoming freshmen and administering biannual, nationwide student-opinion surveys drafted in part by IOP members, the institute also offers opportunities for students to meet some of the world’s top political minds. Approximately six IOP Fellows are on campus each semester to lead study groups and conversations with undergraduates and students from other Harvard schools, as are short-term visiting fellows such as former Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee ’43 and Nesreen Barwari, M.P.A. ’99, of the Iraqi Transitional Government. The high-profile speaker series offers dozens of lectures and question-and-answer sessions each year. Students can also join policy groups to produce working papers on issues as diverse as sex trafficking, legislative redistricting, and healthcare policy.

“One of the things we know from our surveys is that college students who meet an elected official are twice as likely to be engaged politically,” Shaheen said recently. “That’s a pretty amazing statistic.” The IOP is seeking to enhance this impact by expanding and improving its on-line resources. It is also expanding opportunities for students’ firsthand contact with politicians and journalists from across the globe by bringing them to Cambridge—thus adapting its original mission to the demands of today’s more international generation of students.

Ilan T. Graff ’05, who served as president of the IOP from 2003 to 2004 and is helping to edit a book of essays and speeches for the anniversary, said the institute has been able to adapt to this country’s changing political climate because of the breadth of its mission. “To the degree [the IOP has] changed, [that was built in as] part of the original plan,” explained Graff, who will enter Harvard Law School this fall after a year as a writer at the New Democrat Network, a political organizing group based inWashington, D.C. “[The founders] decided to do many things at once, but nothing forever. The student body changes, [so] they created a dynamic range of programs designed to engage students.” David Kaden ’06, Graff’s successor as IOP president, estimated recently that around 2,500 undergraduates are exposed to the institute’s programs each year, and that somewhere between 250 and 300 students make it a central extracurricular activity that complements their ambitions and interests in public service, journalism, and international affairs.

Shaheen and Graff have kept this in mind as they plan for the September event. Besides arranging the keynote address by Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54 and several panels (including one on “The World in 2031”), the IOP staff is in talks to have MTV news correspondent Gideon Yago help moderate one of the events.

~Rebecca O ’Brien

Read more articles by: Rebecca O’Brien

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