WASHINGTON — Spanning the last years of the Obama presidency and ushering in the Trump era, the nonpartisan University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics is delivering hefty doses of political reality to students at the Hyde Park campus.
On Wednesday afternoon, the IOP marks its fifth anniversary with a visit from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The event at Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St., will feature a speech from Trudeau on the importance of public service with a question and answer session with David Axelrod, the IOP founder and director.
Axelrod, as many Chicago Sun-Times readers know, is former President Barack Obama’s top strategist, a U. of Chicago and Chicago Tribune alum who is also a senior political commentator for CNN.
The IOP opened in January 2013, with Axelrod’s goal to fill a gap for students at the university about the practical — not theoretical — role of politics writ large.
“I had been a student at the University of Chicago, and for all of its great virtues, there was nothing like this there when I was a student,” said Axelrod. The school “was very scholarly and very inward.”
The IOP is modeled after the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, created in 1966.
“I had a clear sense of what I wanted to do, and frankly, Harvard provided a great template for that,” said Axelrod, also on the board of the Harvard IOP.
The U. of Chicago IOP is an independent entity not associated with an academic department.
That gives the IOP the freedom to offer to all students seminars, field trips, internship possibilities and access to influential speakers plus other civic engagement programs.
The IOP programs have no grades, papers or tests, though there could be pizza involved.
This formula — bringing together folks of different political parties and ideological views who are or who have been elected or appointed officials, political operatives and political journalists — provides opportunities for students to get jazzed up about politics.
Axelrod was able to swiftly build the IOP into an important Chicago political institution.
That’s because he has the star power to draw big-name speakers and fellows.
Among the more than 1,000 guests at the IOP these past five years: Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee; former Vice President Joe Biden; House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.; Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former President Jimmy Carter, and operatives Karl Rove, Sean Spicer, Corey Lewandowski and Symone Sanders.
Among the 98 fellows were former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Romney adviser Beth Myers.
Axelrod also got the IOP up and running quickly because he was also able to secure significant financial support from the University and a cadre of donors.
Among the donors who have given $500,000 or more in endowed or expendable funds: former Obama Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker’s foundation; Democratic activist Fred Eychaner’s Alphawood Foundation; the Zell Family Foundation, and Chicago’s MacArthur Foundation.
The IOP is headquartered in a renovated mansion built in 1909 at 5707 S. Woodlawn, an elegant clubhouse in the heart of the campus accessible to students no matter their majors.
I asked Axelrod about the most significant program at the IOP and he highlighted some 1,000 interns to have landed spots at the White House, cabinet agencies, congressional offices, governors’ offices, city halls, NGOs, media organizations, and embassies overseas.
Said Axelrod, “These have been life-changing for these kids. “
FOOTNOTE: There is a controversy brewing at the U. of Chicago over a professor’s debate invite to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
Though this is not an IOP event, I asked Axelrod for his view.
“I understand that there is broad antipathy toward Bannon,” Axelrod said. But there is value “to have students have the opportunity to question him. I think that is the central role that campuses can play.”