With book bags tucked under their seats, they sat in audiences filled with specially invited delegates from around the world, listening to Pulitzer-prize winners and statesmen discuss democracy. But when the panel sessions ended, they became the VIPs.
During the World Forum on the Future of Democracy conference this week in Williamsburg, Va., more than 400 students and faculty members participated in question-and-answer sessions held exclusively for people from the College of William and Mary by some of the forum’s world-renowned panelists.
“Our students, as you may have heard, are possessed of considerable intellectual firepower,” said William and Mary President Gene R. Nichol during the conference. “The Democracy Forum’s panelists, over these two days, have shown good courage by consenting to take the students’ questions. They won’t, I’m guessing, be multiple choice.”
They definitely weren’t. Students quizzed the panelists on a wide range of topics ranging from the intentions of the founding fathers to modern democracy and economics.
After a session Monday morning in which panelists discussed developing a structure for deliberative democracy, dozens of students talked with William and Mary alumnus Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of history at Mount Holyoke College.
Ellis took a variety of questions about America’s founding fathers from the students —from why people are so interested in the founding fathers and what important founders do we never hear about to what contemporary state builders can learn from the founders. For approximately an hour, Ellis answered each with a mix of history and humor, stressing to the students that the founders were flawed people, too, and it is important to look at their deficiencies as well as their successes.
Senior Carrie Adams said that knowing Ellis was an alumnus automatically allowed the small group to feel connected to their speaker, making the session more relaxed than the official panel discussion for the entire delegation.
“It was nice to hear him on a little more of a colloquial level and not have 15 cameras around recording his every move,” said Adams. “He got a little freer with his answers and that was funny. It was nice to get him on a personal level, and not as a beacon of academia, but he’s a real guy and he has funny stories to tell.”
Senior Andrew Miller said that the opportunity to meet with Ellis in a small group setting was the reason he attended the conference.
“I love his books,” he said. “I think history has a lot more value when you approach it the way he does.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks also answered questions on Monday from a small group of William and Mary students and faculty members. Brooks, who spoke before Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave his remarks, discussed the teaching of evolution in education, the role of the independent press, and what hidden issues will be key in the 2008 presidential election, among other topics.
Senior Nina Jehle, who attended the Brooks session, called the democracy conference a “once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to hear people speak about democracy.”
“It’s not really what I’m studying, but it affects me and everyone,” said the literary and cultural studies and kinesiology major.
Jehle said the special question-and-answer session was an added bonus.
“It was fabulous,” she said. “It was a great idea. I felt like we were participating a little more than just being allowed to come (to the conference).”
Many students also attended Monday night’s public session at William and Mary Hall. The session, which focused on why the future of democracy matters, featured PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer as its moderator and panelists Sandra Day O’Connor, retired justice of the United States Supreme Court and chancellor of the College; Lawrence Eagleburger, former secretary of state; and Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Prior to the session’s start, William and Mary students were showcased as the William and Mary Jazz Ensemble and Botetourt Chamber Singers provided entertainment. Senior Lindsay Usry presented a video featuring William and Mary service trips, and freshman Kaitlyn Adkins talked about her experience with the youth democracy conference held at the University of Virginia in August 2006.
During the public session, the panelists answered several previously recorded video questions, including many from William and Mary students. They touched on subjects including who benefits from capitalism to whether democracy makes the world a safer place.
Junior Julie Collins was especially interested in hearing the panel’s response to the question about whether democracy is the best kind of government to provide environmental protection.
“I’m a big supporter of environmental issues here, and I wanted to come hear any of their suggestions on how we can start solving some of those problems because it’s going to be up to my generation to do it,” she said. “I thought they were very intelligent and informative, and I’m glad I was able to come and hear them and hear their opinions.”
Like Collins, junior Lara Curtis was not able to attend any of the small sessions because of conflicts with her class schedule. However, she was glad she could attend the public session.
“I especially appreciate the opportunity here where I can come and witness what people in politics really think about what’s going on in the world,” she said. “You hear all these stories, but you never really get down to the roots of the answer of what they really think.”
Whether they participated in small group discussions with panelists or merely as part of an audience of thousands in the public session, all of the students who participated in the conference agreed that they were happy to have had the opportunity to hear from the experts on democracy.
“I thought it was really cool that it was here at the College because most of students want to make a difference in the world, and we pride ourselves on being intelligent, upcoming future leaders,” said Collins. “It gives me hope that I can come back to something else like this in the future at the College and have something to say as someone who made a difference in the world.”