May 2, 2011

by Adam Gerchick ’13

Nearly 300 students and members of the faculty filled the pews of Johnson Chapel on Tuesday, April 12, for a debate on the constitutionality of the Obama health-care law’s requirement that most Americans purchase health insurance or face a stiff fine. The four debaters, two on each side of the issue, were prominent legal scholars at universities and think tanks.

Despite the event’s gravity and attendance, the college did not organize it. Instead, it was hosted by the Amherst Political Union, an organization resurrected after a seven-decade hiatus by three members of the Class of 2013.

From top: Joshua Mayer ’13, Khan
Shoieb ’13,
and James Fromson ’13

The health-insurance debate was the second of three major events this year organized 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 for the political union 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 Amherst President Anthony W. Marx that April, “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 then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Senator Claude Pepper. It also refused to pay honoraria as a matter of principle, 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 emulate its predecessor and cease doing so.)

The original Political Union came to Mayer’s attention when he noticed a photograph in Converse Hall depicting Roosevelt’s speech. Fromson, Mayer and Shoieb quickly appropriated its name. Rather than breaking new ground at Amherst, the trio had revived a long-forgotten institution.

The students contacted President Marx, who quickly expressed support and committed some of his office’s discretionary funds.  Last September, the group made its debut at the college’s Student Organization Fair, where more than 100 students registered for its mailing list.

For its first debate, in Cole Assembly Room on Nov. 14, 2010, Vietnam veteran and Iraq War opponent Andrew Bacevich, (then a visiting professor at Amherst) and Iraq War supporter Max Boot, a senior fellow at 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 two April events, first the health-care debate and then a speech, “Reflections from a Lame Duck: a Conversation with President Marx on Education Reform.” With the exception of his Commencement address, the speech was Marx’s last as Amherst’s president. It also co-sponsored a lecture by philanthropist and investor George Soros May 2.

Because the three organizers are studying abroad next year, they have begun the search for successors. In April, they invited all students to submit applications, including a draft invitation to a potential speaker. Whoever takes over won’t be starting from scratch: Shoieb has already confirmed Michelle Rhee, the aggressively reformist former District of Columbia schools chancellor, to speak in the fall.