John Jay Dinner 2002
Student Spotlight:
  Peter Cincotti '05
Student Spotlight:
  Alisa Weilerstein '04
Columbia College Fund
  Turns 50


Roar Lion Roar


From Columbia to then Kremlin and the Capital

A revived non-partisan Columbia Political Union fills a void on
campus by hosting guest speakers, distributing literature on hot topics, organizing panel discussions and even publishing a magazine

By Jonathan Lemire ’01

Hillary Clinton. Al Gore. John McCain. Bill Bradley. Ralph Nader. Such a set of political heavyweights can usually only be found power-lunching in a Washington, D.C., steakhouse (at separate tables, of course), or perhaps appearing on a particularly ambitious Meet the Press episode. However, in the span of one calendar year, they all journeyed to a college campus far from the Beltway.

More noteworthy still is that the campus that they chose — a political hotbed in the 1960s — has re-emerged as an important political stage, and one student group has led the charge.

“We felt that there was a political void at Columbia,” says Yoni Applebaum ’03, general manager of the Columbia Political Union. “There was a feeling on campus that political events were dangerous and only led to polarization and controversy. The purpose of the CPU is to restore political dialogue.”

Taking Notes from Nature
Former Vice President Al Gore (right), who taught courses at the Journalism School a year ago, visits with University President George Rupp.

Judging from the impressive roster of speakers that the CPU has helped bring to campus since its founding in January 2000, it has done just that, though the organization is far more than simply a platform for the politically powerful to share their views with undergraduates. The CPU also publishes pamphlets (40,000 last year alone) that highlighted the debate over hot-button topics that included Social Security and the budget; hosts frequent panel discussions with political and faculty representatives, engaging students in topics such as the death penalty and campaign finance reform; and even publishes a magazine, Columbia Political Review, which is available for download at the group’s Web site (

The CPU has come a long way from its birth (or rebirth) on a crowded bus on the way to wintry New Hampshire. “Our first formal activity was to sponsor a group of about 50 students to travel to New Hampshire for the initial 2000 presidential primary to support their chosen candidate,” Applebaum, a history major from Newton, Mass., recalls. “Its success encouraged us to think bigger.”

The re-emergence of the CPU (a group with that name has existed since the 1950s, according to Applebaum, but has been dormant) on campus as a political player was the brainchild of Marc Dunkelman ’01, the organization’s founder and original general manager. The thinking was simple: make the concept of unification more important than party lines, and get inherently opposing student groups (such as the College Democrats and Republicans) to co-sponsor events and have their leaders sit on the CPU’s executive board.

Working on the assumption that political extremism only further alienated and ostracized students, the CPU aimed to be a venue for all students to have a voice and feel as though they belonged in the political world. “If you’re going to excite politically interested folks, and certainly if you hope to inspire apathetic corners of the campus, you’re going to need to bring people with differing viewpoints together and let the sparks fly,” Dunkelman says. “Possibly the CPU’s most important contribution is that it provides a safe forum for political debate, allowing students to appreciate the nuances of different arguments and form their own opinions.”

After conquering the snow in New Hampshire, the CPU was faced with a more difficult task if it wanted to remain relevant in the 2000 election year — energizing a politically apathetic student body.

“For almost 30 years, no group on campus tried to forge an arena for real political debate and interaction,” says Dunkelman, who now works for the Senate Judiciary Committee under Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.). “Once the CPU did, the response was overwhelming.”

Buoyed by the natural interest in a presidential election, even the CPU’s initial events were well-attended: speeches by presidential candidate Bill Bradley on the nation’s economy and Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) on welfare reform drew large crowds to the Roone Arledge Auditorium in Lerner Hall. A March 2000 editorial in Spectator lauded the CPU for “bringing much-needed political discourse to Columbia after years of absence.” A CPU-sponsored voter registration drive was similarly applauded.

The list of nationally-known speakers to descend the ramps at Lerner for speeches that spring began to look like the guest list for Larry King Live. After columnist Arianna Huffington spoke on campaign finance reform in March, presidential candidate and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) arrived a few weeks later to touch upon the same subject.

Taking Notes from Nature
Speaking in a panel about fiscal responsibility were (from left) investor Warren Buffet, then-First Lady and now-Senator Hillary Clinton and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

But while the student body continued to pack the Roone to get a glimpse of figures usually only visible on C-SPAN or the Sunday political talk shows, the CPU encountered some resistance in trying to bring other speakers to campus. “The CPU’s emergence was met with a certain degree of hesitancy by the administration,” Dunkelman contends. “They were initially reluctant to permit political candidates to appear on campus, not only for concerns about nonprofit regulations, but also possibly — and justifiably, considering the 1960s — for fear that the school’s reputation would be damaged by an embarrassing incident.”

In a spirit of what could be deemed bipartisanship, however, the CPU and Low Library quickly worked to form a new policy regarding candidate appearances on campus, and soon the administration was, according to Applebaum, “tremendously supportive.”

“I never noticed any resistance; we’ve all been very happy with the CPU,” says University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis, a member of the organization’s advisory board and whose office oversees all Student Government Board groups, including the CPU. “I think it’s simply fabulous that students have a chance to interact with political leaders and each other about issues, and that our school, the most prestigious college in the nation’s most important city, is a political center again.”

When classes reconvened in fall 2000, and with election fever running high, the CPU trotted out its biggest guns yet: then-First Lady Hillary Clinton (now a New York Senator), former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and billionaire Warren Buffet spoke in September about fiscal responsibility, followed by a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres that drew sizeable, yet peaceful protests.

In October, two more men vying for the Oval Office made stops on the Heights: first, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, and then, in the CPU’s biggest “get” of its brief history, then-Vice President Al Gore. The Gore event — which took CPU board members nearly two weeks of nonstop work to arrange — attracted national attention, and a sizeable portion of Gore’s speech graced the pages of The New York Times the next day, complete with a photo of him speaking under Low Library’s soaring rotunda. It was official: Columbia was back on the political map.

‘‘The CPU has had a very positive role in bringing political debates, leaders and issues to campus,” says Anthony Marx, associate professor of political science. “It has contributed to a deepening engagement in difficult issues of the day. As such, the CPU has contributed to a refreshing trend to get beyond the frivolities of the ’90s and to become more serious about the difficulties that we face as a society today.”

As the election year of 2000 eventually ended with a storm of confusion, butterfly ballots and hanging chads, the CPU rededicated itself to fostering political dialogue on campus. Its allotted annual budget of $4,000 long since gone, the CPU — which hopes to soon solicit alumni support for an endowment — raised money “wherever we could find it,” according to Applebaum, and continued with its impressive roster of events. In 2001, it hosted speeches by New York City mayoral candidates Mark Green, Fernando Ferrer and Herman Badillo, as well as a talk by civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton.

Taking Notes from Nature
Ralph Nader

The group also took center stage as a resource for students in the traumatic days following September 11. Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the CPU hosted panel discussions about Homeland Security and the evolution of George W. Bush’s presidency. And in an event covered by CNN, it organized a gathering of students to watch the president’s stirring speech to the House of Representatives on September 20.

“The [mayoral] election and September 11 might have spurred activity by their own force, but having an organization ready to organize forums and events in a nonpartisan and open way provides great added value,” says Professor Robert Shapiro, chair of the Political Science Department and moderator of the Bush panel. “The CPU’s founders and current leaders deserve a lot of credit for assisting in Columbia’s political revival.”

The new politically friendly environment at Columbia stretches beyond even the CPU’s reach, as Morningside Heights has become a mecca for pols-turned-profs. In addition to Gore teaching a Journalism School class last spring, former Bill Clinton aide and current ABC News commentator George Stephanopoulos ’82 and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins have taught recently for the School of International and Public Affairs. And former U.S. Senator George Mitchell (D-Maine) gave an address on international conflict resolution at SIPA in January and will be joining Columbia in July as a senior fellow, conducting lectures and issue briefings for faculty as part of SIPA’s newly formed Center for International Conflict Resolution.

As for the CPU, its mission statement remains constant: provide a platform for Columbia to re-establish itself as a premier stage on the American political circuit. While it has gotten off to an undeniably fast start, the CPU has no plans to rest on its laurels. “We’re focusing now on the new magazine, creating a new roster of speakers and keeping student interest high even though it is not a presidential election year,” says Applebaum. “We think the CPU exemplifies what is good about Columbia — open intellectual and political debate — and we’re going to try to keep it going.”

Jonathan Lemire ’01 is a contributing writer for Columbia
College Today and a city news reporter for The New York Daily News.

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