December 10, 1998
Vol. 18 No. 6

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    [political union] by jason smith  Jacob Studley (right) and Michael Rossman won the support of Art Sussman, General Counsel and Vice President for Administration, who encouraged the two students to form the Political Union. The organization brings political leaders from around the world to speak on the Chicago campus.

    For founders of Chicago’s Political Union the mission is not impossible

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    “Aim high” and “nothing is impossible” may sound hackneyed, but these mottos have paid off for Political Union founders Michael Rossman and Jacob Studley.

    In the last two academic years, the student-run Political Union brought many international speakers to campus to speak with Chicago students, including Betty Friedan, Lech Walesa, Oscar Arias and President Adamkus of Lithuania.

    How do two college students persuade so many international leaders to speak here? “Well you have to have chutzpah,” Rossman said, adding that international leaders recognize the University’s calling card, which has tremendous capital. Studley concurred enthusiastically saying, “This is Chicago, and it has a world-renowned faculty!” For both students, this means no speaker is too important for them to invite, and they can create forums for interaction between academic leaders and world leaders.

    The two students value initiative, persistence and salesmanship. They say they constantly write letters to consulates and make plenty of follow-up phone calls. They also take matters into their own hands. Armed with a passion for their cause, Rossman and Studley traveled to Washington, D.C., where they “did the embassy circuit.” The two talked to representatives from each embassy about speaking opportunities at Chicago.

    “For any speaker we invite, we discuss current issues and see what topic appeals to them,” said Rossman. Guest speakers are not paid, so selling the timeliness of a speech and the significance of it being heard on campus is key to the Political Union’s negotiations.

    Where did their mission originate? “I would talk to my friends from high school and hear about amazing speakers who came to their campuses,” said Studley. “We had great speakers here as well, but their lectures weren’t always publicized to the whole campus.” During Rossman and Studley’s first quarter at Chicago, the only highly promoted speech they were aware of was the Aims of Education Address. They set a goal to increase on-campus awareness and presence of international speakers, particularly those individuals who have made a humanitarian difference through their leadership.

    At a trustees’ luncheon that same quarter, Rossman and Studley broached the subject with General Counsel and Vice President for Administration Art Sussman. “Art Sussman is our inspiration,” said Rossman. “He gave us a rocket-boost to pursue our plans.” The nonpartisan Political Union was born soon after that discussion.

    Though its efforts are student-driven, the Political Union occasionally receives help from University administrators––usually a letter from President Sonnenschein accompanies their invitations to encourage speakers to accept. In addition, Director of the Reynolds Club and Student Activities Bill Michel and Reynolds Club Program Coordinator Tasneem Khokha have supported the Political Union’s efforts, coordinating the infrastructure necessary to bring dignitaries to campus.

    “We wouldn’t be able to do this at Yale or Harvard, because usually, the administration is the vehicle for these events,” Rossman added.

    Friedan’s visit was the ideal opportunity for the Political Union to organize a forum combining academic and political resources. Friedan, Leora Auslander, Director of the Center for Gender Studies, and Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor in Law & Ethics, discussed “Feminism: Past, Present and Future.” Friedan had such a positive experience she agreed to serve on the Political Union’s board of advisors.

    Believing that students should not be intimidated by engaging in dialogue with world leaders, Rossman and Studley make interaction between speaker and students a priority at their events. Question-and-answer sessions usually stimulate that interaction and lead to respectful debate. “If everyone agrees at one of our events, we have probably failed,” said Studley.

    Rossman noted that Chicago students could someday be in leadership positions like those of past guest speakers such as Democratic Party Chair David Wilhelm or British Consul Michael Hodge. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What happens after I have my University education and enter the real world?’ ” said Rossman.

    Rossman and Studley hope hearing world leaders speak will encourage their peers to discover their own potential and believe, as they do, that “nothing is impossible.”