By Shweta Mukesh
Accompanied by an entourage of media and celebrities, former president Bill Clinton brought Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) to the West Coast with style and pizzazz. Launched in 2007, CGI U is based on the hugely successful Clinton Global Initiative but emphasizes youth activism and empowerment. The forum brought together over 1,000 student leaders from around the world, each of whom pledged a commitment in diverse and crucial areas and engaged in proactive debates with youth icons, public policy leaders and NGO founders. As energy levels soared with the arrival of Sean Penn, Drew Barrymore, Chad Hurley, the Jacobs family and others, PROSPECT had the honor of asking former President Clinton a few questions.
PROSPECT: Why bring CGI to the youth?
CLINTON: The power of students is highly underrated. Students may not have the money and the financing that policy makers have access to. Nonetheless, they have amazing ideas and are bursting with passion. Over the last few years, CGIU commitments have led to incredible things. Students have raised over $3 million for scholarships, over $400,000 in humanitarian aid, $800,000 for global health and have built over 44 schools and libraries. This energy needs to be harnessed, groomed and encouraged. My goal is to take the best ideas from CGIU and present them at various conferences and CGI. This will help students raise the necessary funds to scale their commitments.
PROSPECT: What made you choose UCSD?
CLINTON: We have very specific thought process when determining a host university. A few years ago, we chose Tulane. This was in reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Likewise, Miami’s proximity to Haiti made it a good choice while Texas had a vibrant student activist community. There were three reasons that made us turn to UCSD. First, CGIU had so far been concentrated on the East Coast and the South. We wanted to bring this forum to the West Coast. Second, UCSD’s proximity to Mexico was critical. The Mexico-US border has always been a hot spot for conflict. As immigration issues and drug wars dominate much of public policy debates, it seemed like San Diego was a good setting to stimulate debate. Third, UCSD has consistently been ranked in the top three universities for public service and sustainability. Given the above, UCSD was an ideal choice.
PROSPECT: Can you comment on the state of education, particularly in K-12, after you left office? What are the critical policy changes that must be implemented to better the current system?
CLINTON: Regardless of K-12, if the United States has enough students graduating universities, it will still be possible to continue growing. That said, there are many potential causes for the sudden drop in quality of education such as frustration over remedial courses, inability to pay back debt and inflation. I believe that there are a few reforms that are badly needed in higher education. First, students and society must look beyond the traditional acclaimed universities. There are strong liberal arts universities where all students receive Pell Grants. Second, there is a new student loan program that all universities must implement. These loans reduce the cost of education. It requires students to pay back loans based on their salary and job.
PROSPECT: Let’s talk about California. California’s education system has plummeted from being one of the best in the nation to nearly the worst. What went wrong? What do we need to do?
CLINTON: People often point to Propositions 13 and 14. However, the real problem is Proposition 78. Thanks to Proposition 78, many individuals have paid the same amount of property tax (1 percent) for the last 30-40 years. As a result, colleges and universities have been badly deprived of funds. There is no fixed model that can lead to a successful education system. However, there is no substitute for good teachers. In my eyes, what always works is a good principal and a good teacher.
PROSPECT: One last question on education. How do we work on making curriculums more interdisciplinary?
CLINTON: There is tremendous value in interdisciplinary learning. More programs must be demanded and offered. People who are gifted explainers and synthesizers should be encouraged to teach. I dedicate over an hour a day to read subjects outside of politics and economics. We must find ways to merge the sciences with the social sciences. Students must realize that everything is connected and science has a profound impact in society, politics, and culture. This can be seen through Life Technologies (Greg Lucier’s) work.
PROSPECT: Moving away from education, let us talk about peace and human rights. You have been quoted stating that not intervening in Rwanda was one of your biggest regrets. What came to your mind when you heard about Darfur? Do we ever truly mean “never again?”
CLINTON: As Rwanda was happening, the U.S. had already been working for over one year trying to convince the U.N. and NATO to collaborate and promote peace. Though we never discussed Rwanda in the White House, we were still working through international organizations to stabilize the conflict. Rwanda happened fast—100 days and around 1 million dead. I still believe that if we had acted better and smarter, half the lives could have been saved. The international community has done a better job in stabilizing Darfur. The African Union, particularly Rwanda and Nigeria, have been aggressive in promoting peace. I am pleasantly surprised that Southern Sudan will have their rights protected and guaranteed. However, there are still challenges and issues that will harbinger peaceful self-determination such as ethnic mixes and access to water, oil and natural gas.
PROSPECT: We have seen an unprecedented wave of grassroots political action in the Middle East and North Africa. What has been the most interesting and exciting part of watching this unfold?
CLINTON: The most exciting part for me was the role of social media. People in Egypt and Tunisia had been communicating for over a year. Furthermore, though most of these students did meet once at an underground summit, most of their contact was through social networks. In Egypt particularly, Facebook enabled the rebellions to take place.
PROSPECT: What is one message you would like to share?
CLINTON: The true success of our work and efforts is when it is no longer needed. Do not patronize people. Too much of policy and politics is based on large donations that do not allow people to become independent. Policy makers, students, and activists, must learn to empathize and see. They must realize that the goal for most people is to be able to be independent.
Photo courtesy of John Hanacek.