Scenes from St. Paul, Day 3

A professor comes to town as a delegate, a college rigs up a remote class from the convention and foreign journalism fellows get their first taste of American political theater.
September 4, 2008

For the Minnesota delegation, the day began with breakfast at a downtown St. Paul hotel and speeches from the A list of former McCain vice presidential hopefuls: Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota's governor; Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor; and Mitt Romney, last seen as a presidential contender.

Terrence Flower was there as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, which on Wednesday kicked off its third day. As a licensed pilot, professor and chair of physics at the Twin Cities' College of St. Catherine, Flower was fulfilling a longtime commitment to local and state politics. As an instructor who began teaching online early in the 1980s ("I started before we even had a computer" at home, he said) and who believes in the importance of competitive processes for scientific research grants, he supports McCain and his party's emphasis on distance learning and disdain for earmark spending.

For nearly all of the 30 years he has been at the college, Flower has "taken on just about every job" in state districts and committees, including serving as district chairman of the party and advising the campus College Republicans. But until now, he's never been a national delegate.

"I am excited because this is where it ends up. The platform that we adopt has been brought together" from people and ideas all over the country, he said. "These ideas start at the local level and eventually come together."

He knows there are problems to address, especially in higher education -- his own salary, he noted, hasn't increased "anywhere near" the rate at which tuition has grown. "We do have to find ways that people can afford higher education; it does reflect on all of us what role higher education should play in the future." Like the platform approved by delegates this week, Flower suggested that online classes could play a role in reducing colleges' costs and expanding student access.

A Teachable Moment

As the Minnesota gathering wrapped up, another professor was getting ready for his first class of the semester. It required some creative problem solving to pull off, though: As Jon Williams's students sat in a classroom in another state, he delivered his first lecture from the convention itself.

Williams, a political science instructor at Kellogg Community College, in Battle Creek, Mich., was already scheduled to attend the convention as a delegate for Mitt Romney, who won that state in the Republican primary. When Romney dropped out of the race, Williams became a "non-committed" delegate. Even though his first-choice candidate wouldn't be nominated, he thought, "it’s going to be great to be at the national convention, [so] I’ll take a look from the political scientist’s standpoint."

Photo: Courtesy of Kellogg Community College

Students in Michigan follow the video feed from St. Paul

Although it was "a minor miracle that it all came together," his class on Wednesday morning went smoothly enough, with a Skype link that allowed his students to follow along remotely via Web cam. Taking advantage of his location -- the Michigan delegation's hotel -- Williams invited party leaders to join him for the session. He discussed how the state picks its Democratic and Republican delegates, and spoke with the secretary of state and a local politician, among others.

"We wanted to try to keep the message as nonpartisan as possible, which is tough to do in this atmosphere -- you know, this is what we’re here for!" he pointed out.

In any case, Williams hopes to try something similar in the future, if not for a national convention then perhaps for a state gathering. Instead of a staged, static presentation, he's considering handing out "traveling Web cams" to political leaders who would then provide roving dispatches directly to his classes.

Like this time, he's looking for something a bit more authentic for his students. "Not only are we getting the scripted stuff from the convention, we’re getting the non-scripted stuff, just the to and the fro... ."

A Delegation From Abroad

A psychologist walks into the Republican convention. It sounds like the first half of a joke, but in this case it's the fulfillment of a quest set in motion 48 years ago.

Kenneth Doyle, a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, has an admittedly "checkered past," as he calls it: living under a vow of poverty for 10 years as a monk, and following that phase of his life with a stint as an investment adviser and financial planner -- "so I got to know the world of capitalism pretty well," he said. Now he's also president of the Minnesota Association of Scholars, the state chapter of the National Association of Scholars, a group that promotes "rational discourse" and a "marketplace of ideas" and generally opposes what it sees as political correctness at colleges. (Flower, it turns out, is on the board.)

Photo: Andy Guess

Kenneth Doyle (right) checks on the status of his press credentials


From there, he had a vantage point from which to observe how families make decisions about money and how they interact with business associates. Doyle now describes himself as something of a "financial psychologist," with research that has potential implications for politics. "What does it mean to people to lose their home? What does it mean to different kinds of people to lose their home, or to lose their job?"

He also happens to like showing people around. Which is why every year he meets recipients of the World Press Institute fellowships, journalists from around the world who come to the Twin Cities and other parts of the United States to learn about how journalism is practiced in America. With the university's Minnesota Journalism Center, he's bringing this year's contingent to the convention. ("I don’t know what the limits are. I’ll bluff my way as far as I get." Actually, he and his group obtained perfectly legitimate foreign press credentials.)

That brings him full circle from his first -- and until now, only -- trip to a convention, in 1960 when the Republicans met in Chicago. "I was everywhere I wanted to be. What a hell of an experience for a grade-school kid.... Those memories are still vivid in my mind."

Reached at the Xcel Energy Center Wednesday night, Doyle was lingering outside the convention hall while the journalists pursued their stories within.

Tune in tomorrow for Inside Higher Ed's final day of coverage from the RNC, including a constantly updated Twitter stream of consciousness.


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