OCTOBER 2008 | VOL. 9 NO. 2  
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Redefining the American Dream: Xavier University Creates New Institute for Politics and Public Life
 Caroline Purtell
Associate Editor
Xavier University

Mallory Heidorn rises just after sunrise on a snowy Saturday morning, excited to volunteer a few hours at the McCain headquarters during Iowa’s presidential caucus. The Xavier University junior had spent the day before cramped on a bus with about 40 other students for the 10-hour ride from Cincinnati to Des Moines. Despite the weather and lack of sleep, Heidorn leaves the hotel in good spirits and carefully maneuvers through a fresh layer of snow that had blanketed the city during the night. Once she arrives, she takes a seat in a small cubicle where she telephones prospective voters. “Are you coming to the caucus?” she asks while ticking off names on a printed call list.

The trip to Iowa last December was a result of a course titled Presidential Campaigns 1960-2008, which explores the history and strategies used in modern executive races. Moving beyond theory, the class put the 2008 presidential primary into perspective, and the excursion required students to work for their chosen candidate. This gave Heidorn, now a senior, the opportunity to see presidential politics in action at the ground level.

A dual major in political science and an honors program aptly named philosophy, politics and the public, Heidorn isn’t interested in running for office herself—a question often posed by family and friends. “I’m more interested in the civic engagement aspect and getting people interested in doing their part in the political system,” she says, adding that she’s disappointed by the number of people in the country who don’t vote or don’t know a lot about their own political process. “I don’t think it’s because people don’t care,” Heidorn explains. “I think people get discouraged or lose interest because they don’t think they can do anything or their vote doesn’t make a difference.”

Low voter turnout and a growing national cynicism are common concerns among many college-age students—and Americans in general. Xavier is addressing these issues though the creation of the non-partisan Institute for Politics and Public Life, which aims to provide leadership in national discussions of politics and public policy in an academic setting. The Institute will further act as a place to research crucial matters of public policy and governance and disseminate findings to the public.

To capitalize on existing political interest on campus, the Institute intends to draw student involvement from throughout the University—from political science to business to biology majors. It’s being created as a ‘home’ for the kind of activities that blend together coursework and outside activities such as internships, survey research and advanced study on the role of the Internet. “Those are all big issues that might be dealt with piecemeal around campus, and this is an attempt to focus some of that and empower students to use those things as tools to be better citizens and affect public policy,” says Gene Beaupré, director for government relations at Xavier.

One important tenet of the Institute is the American Dream Project. “One serious element of this program is to understand what the values ought to be in America,” Beaupré says. “The term ‘American Dream’ is used freely and without much thought, and this is an attempt to provide historical and philosophical and methodological ways of understanding that better.” Beaupré foresees a national survey, interdisciplinary coursework, seminars, student-made documentaries and public events that invite public input and thoughtful, nonpartisan discussion to help redefine the iconic idea of the American Dream.

“The Institute is our response to the deteriorated state of our public life, public discourse, and politics,” adds Xavier history professor John Fairfield. “There is widespread concern that the American Dream is no longer possible for many people, but more alarming is our difficulty in articulating exactly what the American Dream is. The Institute seeks to cultivate the civic skills so desperately needed in our political life and enhance the role of the public realm in discussions of the American Dream."

In the meantime, Xavier is attempting to attract national attention and generate excitement for the Institute by hosting four national political experts as part of a special presidential election panel next month. The speakers include Donna Brazile (D), Joe Trippi (D), Mike Murphy (R) and John Kasich (R), all of whom have served as senior strategists for a presidential campaign or have been elected to public office. Beaupré stresses that this event—and the Institute in general—isn’t intended to be a Democratic or Republican or Conservative or Liberal examination. Instead, it should embrace all these points of view.

“In keeping with the University's Jesuit mission of engaging students intellectually, morally, and spiritually, so that they can lead lives of solidarity, service, and success, the Institute for Politics and Public Life will make it possible for our students and other members of the community to engage in politics and political issues,” says Roger Fortin, academic vice president and provost. “This is important because connecting students to day-to-day activities, such as politics and the political process, is essential to a Jesuit education.”