By Adam Gerchick ’13
From top: students Mayer, Shoieb and Fromson, who resurrected the Amherst Political Union after a seven-decade hiatus
On a busy Tuesday in April, three students pulled off a rare feat: they convinced 300 people at Amherst to be in the same place at the same time, and food wasn’t even involved. The draw was a debate on health care reform. The four debaters, two on each side of the issue, were prominent legal scholars at universities and think tanks, but they weren’t household names. Nevertheless, a large crowd of students and faculty members filled Johnson Chapel to hear these experts argue the constitutionality of the Obama health care law’s requirement that most Americans purchase health insurance or face a stiff fine.
Hosted by the Amherst Political Union, an organization resurrected after a seven-decade hiatus, the health insurance debate was the second of four major events organized or co-hosted last academic year by the new group’s founders, James Fromson ’13, Joshua Mayer ’13 and Khan Shoieb ’13.
Conceived in April 2010, the revived political union is a vehicle for the three students’ simple vision: to foster serious political debate on campus by hosting distinguished speakers. The idea came to Mayer and Shoieb in a Charles Pratt Dormitory common room while they watched Prime Minister’s Questions, the televised weekly session of the British House of Commons during which the prime minister fields questions from the opposition party. As Shoieb wrote to then-President Anthony W. Marx that month, “Many Amherst College students are attuned to the politics of our nation, but the political potential of our campus remains untapped because of a lack of any meaningful forum for the discussion of matters of political concern.”
In establishing their group, the students took a page, and a name, from a few distinguished predecessors. In 1939 several alumni—including Robert Morgenthau ’41, who would later serve for decades as Manhattan’s district attorney, and Richard Wilbur ’42, former U.S. poet laureate—founded the original Amherst Political Union. Before dissolving just three years later, it brought in such speakers as Eleanor Roosevelt. As a matter of principle, it refused to pay the debaters, relying on the organization’s and college’s reputation to attract speakers. (The new Political Union pays presenters who request compensation but hopes to develop enough prestige to eventually emulate its predecessor in that regard.)
For the new group’s first debate, Vietnam veteran and Iraq War opponent Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor, and Iraq War supporter Max Boot, of the Council on Foreign Relations, debated the resolution: “This house believes that post-9/11 national security policy is on the wrong track.” The Amherst Student ran a front-page story on the debate, which drew a standing-room-only crowd. On the heels of that success, the group organized the health care debate and a speech, “Reflections from a Lame Duck: A Conversation with President Marx on Education Reform.” It also co-sponsored a lecture by philanthropist and investor George Soros.
The group has already confirmed another big name—Michelle Rhee, the aggressively reformist former schools chancellor for Washington, D.C.—to speak in the fall.
Photo by Samuel Masinter '04
Poster image from Archives and Special Collections