By SUSAN JONES
When Pitt moved most of its operations online in the spring, the Institute of Politics and the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy started looking for ways to “stay in the game,” said Mark Nordenberg, chancellor emeritus who chairs the institute and is director of the Thornburgh Forum.
The online interview program they developed — “Governing in Crisis: Preserving Democracy, the Rule of Law and American Values” — started in early summer, featuring local and national leaders talking with Nordenberg about governance, health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The program will continue through the fall and into next year.
Nordenberg said they thought they’d be following the pack with this kind of programming, but, “It seems as if what we’re doing, to some extent, is blazing some new trails, and it makes us feel good,” he said.
One conversation in particular has garnered national attention. In June, the series featured former Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe (2010-15) discussing “The Challenges Facing America’s Most Respected Agency.” Since then, the controversy over mail-in voting has prompted reporters from the Washington Post and some New York City radio stations to contact the Institute of Politics for ways to reach Donahue.
After having programming cancelled in the spring, Nordenberg said they realized, “there were so many important things happening, and things where people were hungry for information. We know now that we’re really living through a time that is going to be important in history. So to look at these issues — whether they relate to public health or the economy or the issues of racial justice — we thought, well let’s press forward and see what we can do.”
That led to the development of the summer slate of speakers, which ranged from Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald talking about measures Allegheny County has taken to protect the health, safety and democracy of its citizens; to Arthur Levine, former senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences, on “Battling COVID-19 with the Power of Science”; to state Rep. Jake Wheatley on “Police Reform and Broader Issues of Systemic Racism.”
All of the talks are available to watch on YouTube or to listen to as a podcast on multiple platforms. Each is accompanied by a “Learn and Do More” list prepared by Aaron Lauer,
a senior policy analyst for the Institute of Politics. For instance, the Learn More section for former Postmaster General Donahue’s interview includes links to a short video about the history of the postal service, an article about the controversy around the postal service and Amazon, and a copy of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006. In the Take Action section, there are other suggested reading and links to a petition to save the postal service and purchase stamps online.
The people and issues that the interviews highlight are, “of professional and personal interest to me and the institute in terms of educating people on important issues that are in the news and providing some explanation … of why they’re important and why they might impact decisions going forward in terms of governance and the fall election,” Lauer said.
He also has created teaching guides that include summaries of the interviews, along with potential ways to use the material and suggested discussion topics. Kim Carson, program director for the Thornburgh Forum, is in charge of outreach to Pitt faculty members, other universities and high school teachers who might be interested in using the materials in their class.
Nordenberg said they’ve had conversations with the executive director of the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, who gave them some ideas that would make the package more attractive to colleges. “We’re kind of learning while we’re doing,” he said.
All of the materials are free and open to anyone who wants to use them on the Institute of Politics website.
While some of the topics covered in the interviews might be controversial, Nordenberg said, “We are studious about being nonpartisan, … but we’re not neutral when it comes to things like truth or democracy or freedom of the press.”
The interviews for the fall have already started. Each is recorded and then posted a few days later, to give Lauer time to collect the accompanying materials.
The lineup for the fall and the dates the videos will be available:
Sept. 8: Robert Scherrer, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, on “COVID, Classrooms and Community Planning for a New School Year”
Sept. 16: David Shribman, executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on “Yes, the Truth Still Matters”
Sept. 22: David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the civic leadership group the Committee of Seventy, on “Ensuring that our Elections are Fair and Safe”
Sept. 29: Chuck Rosenberg, former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and the Southern District of Texas and former acting administrator of the DEA, on “The Rule of Law and the United States Department of Justice”
Oct. 6: Harry Litman, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania and former deputy assistant attorney general, on “Maintaining Law and Order While Preserving our Democracy”
They’ll take a break until after the November election, Nordenberg said, and they have some programs in the works for late November and December. Then after the first of the year, they’ll delve into issues raised by either the re-election of President Trump or the transition to a new administration.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.
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