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Collegians Pool Their Ideas in New Think Tank

A public policy center that has branched out from Stanford launches a journal to put student research in the mix.

October 09, 2005|Ryan G. Murphy | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — On the agenda for discussion: alternatives to drilling for oil, AIDS prevention in South Africa, improving access to health insurance for children.

But this meeting was a bit different from most on Capitol Hill, because many of the activists in the room pushing for major public policy changes were not yet old enough to purchase an alcoholic beverage.

About 200 college students gathered last week in the Cannon House Office Building to celebrate the first issue of the Roosevelt Review, a journal from one of the nation's newest public policy centers, the Roosevelt Institution.

The group -- which describes itself as the "first progressive student think tank in the nation" -- is using its new publication as a catalyst to influence public policy and to demonstrate that college students' intellect is a resource to be harvested by policymakers, national leaders and the media.

"We like to say that colleges are effectively think tanks; they're just not effective think tanks," said Quinn Wilhelmi, 21, a junior majoring in religious studies at Stanford University and the institution's executive director.

"Every college student has an idea of great caliber or a late-night dorm conversation that produces something of excellence," he said. "There should be a repository for those great ideas that happen every day on our campuses."

Created at Stanford in November 2004 by students disappointed with the outcome of the presidential election, the Roosevelt Institution was named in honor of Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, who "represent the great bipartisan progressive tradition of America," and Franklin's wife, Eleanor. (The name also plays off another Stanford think tank -- the Hoover Institution, a renowned center of conservative thought founded by Herbert Hoover in 1919 before he became president.)

As the Stanford group was forming, across the country, students at Yale University were working on something similar. The two groups linked up and coordinated their efforts, creating a forum for research and discussion by some of the nation's brightest -- and youngest -- thinkers.

The first issue of the Roosevelt Review, available at, includes articles on solar energy, military use of uranium, AIDS and genetic testing. The articles were selected by student editors and policy experts from among 200 submissions. Nine of the contributing authors are pursuing their bachelor's degrees; several others are in graduate school.

One article, by recent Stanford graduate Jenny Tolan, discussed how cultural expectations of married women in South Africa have increased their vulnerability to AIDS.

Tolan found that married women were actually more vulnerable to contracting HIV than sexually active single women and recommended the use of microbicide, a spermicide-like gel that can significantly decrease the rate of HIV contraction. And she urged an increase in microbicide funding so that the product could be put on the market by 2010.

In the near future, the Roosevelt Institution plans to launch its Special Center on Emergency Preparedness and Relief to address gaps in U.S. disaster relief policy exposed by Hurricane Katrina.

The initiative is being coordinated by Alicia Raia, 20, a journalism major at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. According to Raia, students will formulate research projects and policy proposals in coordination with field experts and other Roosevelt Institution chapters around the country.

"In North Carolina, we've seen the destruction of hurricanes firsthand," she said. "As a new organization, the Roosevelt Institution has an obligation to respond to timely issues and issues of national debate," such as Hurricane Katrina.

In the last 11 months, students have organized 120 chapters of the Roosevelt Institution across the country, branching out to the University of Oregon, the University of Texas and Bates College in Maine. Organizers hope that the movement will spread to all 50 states and internationally.

Each chapter has student-run policy committees dealing with such issues as economics, education, health, science and technology. Working with a faculty advisor, each committee collects student research for publication, formulates policy ideas and works closely with local community organizations to foster discussion about policy changes.

The organization's board of advisors includes former Defense Secretary William J. Perry; the editor of the policy magazine the Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel; California Controller Steve Westly, and even two senior fellows at the Hoover Institution, John H. Bunzel and Larry Diamond.

The Roosevelt Institution has had a slow start financially, Wilhelmi said. So far it has survived with foundation grants and contributions made through direct-mail requests. Individual chapters have also hosted "grass-roots" house parties to help raise money.

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