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First-year Sanford initiative POLIS engaging students with politics

A Sanford School of Public Policy initiative that began in the Fall semester connects students with politics in new and integrative ways.

Funded as part of a $10 million gift from David Rubenstein, Trinity ‘70 and chair of the Board of Trustees, to Sanford, The Center for Politics, Leadership, Innovation and Service, has brought together political and identity groups on campus. Among the political players impacted by the initiative include figures in Washington, the media and other organizations to make politics more accessible to students. After several months of faculty discussions, Frederick Mayer, director of POLIS and professor of public policy, and Land Douglas Elliott, associate director of POLIS, formed the initiative last summer and launched it in September.

Since then, they have worked to engage students by combining politics with different disciplines, such as documentary studies and comedy. POLIS is one of the sponsors of a political comedy show Feb. 29 featuring SiriusXM Insight radio talk show hosts Pete Dominick, John Fugelsang and Dean Obeidallah.

“POLIS is a new center at Duke aimed at improving the health of our democracy,” Elliott wrote in an email. “We envision working towards this improvement in two important ways: inspiring students to become more politically engaged and harnessing the energy and expertise of our faculty and students to study and propose innovative solutions to some of the challenges to the proper function of our political system.”

Senior Ernest Britt III—a fellow of POLIS—noted that young people, compared to other generations, are not as politically engaged, a problem POLIS intends to work on.

Many students who observe the dysfunction and partisanship in politics today decide not to take part in it, Elliott explained.

“To combat that, we want to make sure to highlight examples of the best of politics and where things do work well,” she wrote.

Elliott outlined different ways POLIS has tried to engage students from different disciplines, including the “Data+” research project, which incorporates polling data with politics to facilitate student projects that span multiple disciplines.

“I think this interdisciplinary approach is very Duke and very future-oriented,” Britt said. “Politics in the 21st century isn’t red versus blue, Capitol Hill, White House. There’s so much more to it than that now. So, the interdisciplinary nature of it reflects how politics is actually happening now and it also brings in a lot of diverse interests and people together to engage in politics.”

Another way that POLIS has tried to engage with students is through the Political Leadership Council (PLC), which consists of student representatives from major political and identity groups on campus. The PLC advises POLIS on how best to connect with students and market to them, explained junior Zachary Gorwitz, the Duke Political Review representative on the PLC.

Sophomore Lisa Guraya, the Public Policy Majors Union representative on the PLC, said that she wants POLIS to find a way to make students care more about politics.

“Hopefully, what I would like to see POLIS doing is getting students more politically involved and feeling like they have a voice in politics,” she said.

In addition, POLIS will work with Tom Ross—former president of the University of North Carolina system and a Terry Sanford Distinguished Fellow—on a project focused on revamping political district lines in the U.S.

Britt noted that since POLIS’ inception, it has been involved with many successful events, such as a social media contest around a talk with Scott Dikkers of The Onion in September. However, he said he hopes that POLIS will gain more visibility by the end of the year. Other events sponsored by the center include a talk Wednesday by Macon Phillips, Trinity ‘00 and former deputy director of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign’s new media department.

“We’re still very much in ‘start up’ phase, and the main ‘service’ we provide is to serve as a hub of all things politics at Duke, in addition to exciting, creative, engaging political programming,” Elliott wrote. “Ultimately our goal is to offer permanent courses, workshops, career support and other practical pathways to political life.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct erroneous spelling, note that Phillips' talk was rescheduled to Wednesday and clarify that several faculty members discussed the initiative before it was launched in September 2015. The Chronicle regrets the errors.


Likhitha Butchireddygari

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Class of 2019

Editor-in-chief 2017-18, 

Local and national news department head 2016-17

Born in Hyderabad, India, Likhitha Butchireddygari moved to Baltimore at a young age. She is pursuing a Program II major entitled "Digital Democracy and Data" about the future of the American democracy.

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