he following invitation from Allegheny College President Richard Cook was mailed to college and university presidents on November 5, 2007.
As political campaigns move into overdrive and event schedulers race to book venues for thousands of rallies in the 2008 election season, I invite you to join Allegheny College and other colleges and universities in an initiative that promises to elevate the level of political debate by ending the practice of holding closed campaign events in campus facilities.
In 2004 we at Allegheny College were inadequately prepared for an unanticipated dilemma related to a campaign event on our campus, and your campus may face a similar situation.
A national campaign organization asked to rent a facility on our campus for a “town meeting.” It was to be a ticketed event, with the campaign organization determining how the tickets would be distributed. Our practice had been to welcome private groups to use our facilities with or without charge, depending on availability and circumstances. We had no sound basis to deny this request despite our distaste for the idea of a closed “town meeting” and our frustration with the increasingly prevalent practice by both major national political parties of selecting receptive audiences to enhance the likelihood of generating upbeat media coverage. Limiting an audience to supporters and denying others the opportunity to participate are the antithesis of what college campuses should be about.
This experience spurred into action our faculty and administration, who were determined to find ways to encourage candidates to come to our campus while embracing the ideals of authentic political engagement and debate—foundations of a healthy democracy. We turned to Professor Daniel Shea, nationally respected campaign expert and founder of our Center for Political Participation, who shaped a new policy in collaboration with his faculty colleagues and the administration. The policy that resulted from those discussions still allows campaign organizations to reward supporters with tickets to an event, but at least half of the available seats must be made available to the general college community through a non-biased distribution. A copy of this policy along with Dan’s opinion piece, which was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, is enclosed.
We recognize that our campus policy is only a first step. None of us can solve the dilemma unilaterally because campaign organizations will only go on to approach another campus, one that has no requirements for open events. I want to suggest collective action that will improve campaigning and the quality of political debate nationally and that seeks to stop campaigns from using college and university campuses for sound bites and photo opportunities under the guise of town meetings. This is not a partisan issue–our concern and policies apply equally to all parties and candidates.
Through collective action we in higher education can take a leadership role in working to create the kind of political dialogue that best serves the interests of our citizens–including college students, who are often so disenchanted by the political process that they choose to opt out of it–and our democracy. Would you consider adopting a policy on campus-based campaign events that is similar to ours?
Time is of the essence if we are to have an influence on improving political campaigning in this election cycle. While it may take some time to formally adopt such a policy on your campus, I invite you to take the first step by joining the Soapbox Alliance, a group of institutions who pledge to work toward the goal of having an open-event policy enacted by September 1, 2008.
For more information about this initiative, please visit our website, www.soapboxalliance.org. Please contact Daniel Shea, (814) 332-2252 with your questions, suggestions, and response to this request. Thank you for your interest.
Richard J. Cook