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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Democratic National Convention begins here today, but Democrats were already gathering over the weekend for sessions that will likely feature higher education in a more prominent role than was the case at the Republicans’ gathering last week in Tampa.
President Obama, who will accept his party’s nomination Thursday night, has campaigned on his expansion of the Pell Grant and college tax credits as well as his proposals to make college more affordable. The party's platform, released Monday night, reiterates those points.
As the convention got underway over the weekend, plenty of representatives of higher education were already on hand -- including delegates, professors working with students or conducting research, and at least two speakers. Tonight's program promises to devote several segments to education, including two videos and two speeches.
Two Speakers from Campus
One speaker with ties to higher education, announced late Monday night, is Ryan Case, a 28-year-old University of Colorado at Boulder senior who introduced the president on a recent visit to campus and who is taking a year off from college to work on the re-election campaign.
Another is Nate Davis, the director of Xavier University’s veterans affairs office. Davis knows what he’s talking about when he works with veterans attending the Roman Catholic university: he financed his Xavier degree, which he received in June, with veterans' educational benefits.
Tonight, the opening night of the convention, he’ll speak for two minutes at the Time Warner Cable Arena about how those benefits help students.
Davis, who is also an Obama campaign surrogate, doesn’t know how he was chosen; he suspects it might be because he interned for Senator Sherrod Brown during college, or because he’s active in veterans’ groups in the area. He emphasized that he’s representing only himself, not the university, which -- like many Catholic colleges -- has had its differences with the administration in recent months over the requirement that health insurance plans cover birth control.
He said he deeply respects Obama’s work on veterans’ issues. “He’s out front out there, talking about veterans, talking about us,” Davis said in a phone interview Sunday. “It’s obviously very, very, very important to him. It’s been a top thing on his agenda.”
At Xavier, where veterans’ enrollment has grown from less than 50 to almost 150 since 2009, Davis works with veterans’ groups on outreach. The Jesuit college has a long history with veterans, Davis said -- it credits the original GI Bill, after World War II, with boosting faltering enrollments and ensuring the university’s future.
When he speaks to veterans, he tells them that the Jesuits’ founder, Ignatius of Loyola, was a wounded veteran himself, who became religious as he recovered from a war wound of his own. “It’s something they identify with immediately,” Davis said. “It gives them a sense of belonging. I think it’s very significant that one of us has done so much and impacted the world.”
Representing the NEA
Of more than 200 members of the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union, serving as delegates this week, just 22 are employed in higher education. (The American Federation of Teachers also has delegates here.)
Two of those delegates, in interviews Monday, said they had local and national higher education issues on their minds: state funding shortages, financial aid, for-profit higher education and help for immigrant students.
“I think the party and president have said a lot about higher education,” said Cristina Castro, a marketing specialist at Elgin Community College in Elgin, Ill., and a first-time delegate at the convention. She praised Obama for understanding student debt and for helping students get financial aid.
If the president wins a second term, she said, she’d like to see him do more to rein in for-profit higher education. “The money they get in federal funding, whether a student is successful or not -- it’s scary,” said Castro, who said she was influenced by Senator Dick Durbin’s recent report on the for-profit college industry. “Everyone has to be held accountable.”
For Cecile Bendavid, a computer science lecturer at California State University at Northridge, many of the top concerns are state issues, such as burgeoning class sizes and the state’s budget crisis. Should Obama win a second term, she said she hopes the DREAM Act, to provide young illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship, will be a top priority.
Given the administration’s recent announcement of the “deferred action” policy, which would make those students eligible for work permits, she said, “I’m extremely worried about what’s going to happen in two years.”
Local Students and Professors
Many Charlotte-area colleges are planning some kind of convention activity -- sending students to volunteer, for example, or professors to conduct research. Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black college, is working on an interdisciplinary project called “RUN-DNC” to involve students in the convention. (No word on whether anyone intends to follow Newt Gingrich’s lead and teach a massively open online course, or MOOC, from the convention.)
Sheryl Oring, an assistant professor of art at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, was working at the convention in a different way: showing an art installation called "I Wish to Say," a project she's presented in various forms since 2003.
Monday afternoon, Oring, as well as a fellow art professor, one of her graduate students and a handful of undergraduates, invited visitors to the convention to write letters to Obama. Oring and three others took dictation of the letters on portable typewriters while dressed like 1960s secretaries in red, white and blue.
The project began in Oakland, Calif., in 2003, and has since traveled to the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions, as well as sites as varied as a Navajo reservation and the Las Vegas strip, Oring said.
One letter on Monday: “Dear Mr. President: You better win or I’m moving to New Zealand (which is what my parents threatened to do if Barry Goldwater had won)!”
“We get a really wide range of responses,” said Matt Hayes, a master’s in fine arts student at the university who traveled with Oring to film the installation.