Calling All Students: Bill Clinton Wants You (in New Orleans)

The former president shares plans for a "global issues" conference at Tulane University.
February 14, 2008

Colleges can promote their greening efforts through any number of platforms, including the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, a membership organization that continues to add new institutions to its roster.

Students, too, have options -- among them national and state coalitions that connect campuses and share best environmental practices. Enter into the picture a well-known voice who's looking to expand the conversation.

President Bill Clinton last month announced plans for a conference on "global issues" aimed at college students, and Wednesday explained the event in a conference call with roughly 550 representatives from student newspapers -- with the hopes of spreading the word to campuses. Clinton reiterated the idea that students have the passion and enthusiasm needed to affect change.

Much like the annual summit of the Clinton Global Initiative, which brings together business and political leaders to discuss a range of world issues, the inaugural Clinton Global Initiative University invites students and college officials to make a commitment on their campuses in one of four areas: energy and climate change, global health, human rights, and peace and poverty alleviation.

In the range of 500 to 600 students are expected at the three-day event (March 14-16) at Tulane University, which features sessions and panels about the global issues identified by Clinton's foundation. Clinton is scheduled to give the opening and closing remarks.

The summit is free and open to undergraduate or graduate students. Event organizers are still accepting applications, and they say university presidents, administrators, philanthropists and heads of nonprofit groups also have been invited.

As part of the application, students are asked to state what global issue they want to address at the summit, and are evaluated, in part, on how they present ways in which that problem can be solved.

"A lot of people know they want to do something about climate change or global health," said Robert Harrison, chief executive officer of the Clinton Global Initiative. "We're here to work on refining those commitments and provide a market place where people who have ideas and potential solutions to global challenges can come together and commit to action."

The initiative will rely on students to honor their commitments, Harrison said. If someone plans to return in future years, he added, that person will need to demonstrate how they've followed through on their plan.

Harrison said the idea is also to encourage college presidents to make new environmental or global health research commitments for their campuses (as opposed to, say, a renewed pledge to continue a divestment campaign).

The environmental action ideas listed on the initiative's Web page -- installing compact fluorescent bulbs, initiating a tree planting campaign, starting a local farmer’s market -- should look familiar to those who have followed student-led efforts on climate change.

But the examples go beyond greening: sponsoring immunizations and vaccines in high-risk regions of the world, starting a student-run global debate club on campus and creating a "socially responsible" M.B.A. program that works hands-on with microfinance ventures in a developing region or local site.

Julian Dautremont-Smith, associate director of the higher education sustainability group, said he’s optimistic that the student-focused meeting will inspire new efforts by students. “I appreciate that the CGI U isn’t promoting a specific commitment of their own, so (it) can be an opportunity for students to reinvigorate their participation in existing sustainability and public service initiatives.”

The event’s location in New Orleans is symbolic, organizers say, as the city has recently experienced both a major natural disaster and a grassroots effort to respond to it.

Harrison said in future years the hope is to hold events at other colleges and attract a different pool of students. While those not in attendance this year can follow the summit through a streaming video, he said the idea is that people participating from remote campuses next year will be able to interact with each other in real time.

The Clinton Global Initiative's efforts to court college students comes at a time when the former president's wife, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, is looking to attract more young voters who appear to have shifted in large numbers to her competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama.

Harrison said the event is being held solely for the purpose of bringing together student activists and potential commitment partners, and has no connection to Senator Clinton's campaign.


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