A few days before 1,200 service-oriented students descended enthusiastically on the Danforth Campus, President Bill Clinton and Washington University Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton hosted a free-ranging question-and-answer teleconference with local and national reporters. After introducing the CGI U concept and background, they fielded questions on funding for student projects, how role models inspire young people to dream big, and the challenge of STEM education.
An excerpt of the conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
CHANCELLOR MARK S. WRIGHTON
We’re thrilled to be hosting the Clinton Global Initiative University this weekend. This is an exciting and important opportunity for us because our students and our faculty are very engaged in issues that the Clinton Global Initiative University has addressed, and we look forward to being partnered with this important organization. This conference not only stimulates great ideas about how to address the world’s problems but, perhaps most important, provides a venue to learn how to implement these great ideas. I believe it will heighten interest and expand the impact of the Clinton Global Initiative.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON
Washington University has a long, strong commitment to public service and civic engagement. That’s one of the main reasons that we decided to have the meeting there this year. They’ve been a terrific partner. I’m very grateful. And I want to say a special thanks for their long-standing commitment to prepare students to be public service-oriented through the Gephardt Institute for Public Service and other on-campus organizations.
Q: THESE KIDS OBVIOUSLY AREN’T SHORT ON IDEAS. BUT WHAT DO THEY USUALLY LACK IN ORDER TO GET THEIR PROJECTS GOING?
Normally when they make a commitment like this, they don’t have enough resources to get started. But one of the things that I’ve been working on is trying to find CGI U a crowd-funding partner. More and more projects like this are being funded in a very transparent way by large numbers of smaller donors.
When the Haiti earthquake hit, a billion dollars was given. The median contribution was [approximately] $25, because you could donate through text. You could type in “Haiti” on your cell phone, and it would direct you to a charity. So what I’m trying to do is figure out if there’s some way to connect these ideas to the crowd-funding marketplace, so at least a fair number of them could get funding in that way.
Mr. President, I think you can also take some pride in having also nurtured the development of the Clinton Global Initiative University network. We’re proud to be a part of it, but there are 32 other colleges and universities in it. And these institutions can provide some of the infrastructure to execute what’s needed to implement these ideas.
Thank you, Chancellor, for saying that. We have more of a commitment from schools in our network to support some of these ideas off the ground, at least giving them seed capital, than ever before.
Most of the time, the young people have great ideas — but no money at all. And sometimes, what they do really makes a difference. I’ll give you one example.
Several years ago, one of our teams of students from South Asia pointed out that the nutritional substance given to babies born with HIV, so they could be given medicine, was based off a peanut. African kids liked it and South Asian kids couldn’t stand it. So this team developed an alternative — something that has the potential to affect literally millions of people and save tens of thousands of lives. But they needed to start in order to prove that they could do it.
That’s the sort of thing that I hope will happen with these start-up commitments that the university network has committed to provide.
Q: I WAS THINKING ABOUT [PRESIDENT CLINTON’S] MEETING WITH PRESIDENT KENNEDY WHEN YOU WEREN’T MUCH YOUNGER THAN THE PEOPLE WHO ARE CONVENING THIS WEEK. HOW DID A MEETING LIKE THAT INFLUENCE YOU IN BECOMING A LEADER?
It had a big impact on me. Once you’re around anything that you might want to do, you can imagine doing it. All these young people attending CGI U — I think it may be more inspiring for them to be with each other than for it is to have me there.
But I think the principle is the same. I want them to be able to imagine that they can actually have an impact, that their ideas count, that their deepest concerns are things that they can actually act on, that they can live a life that has integrity and impact.
And that may be the most lasting benefit — how deeply these kids believe when they leave that this is not some idle exercise. It should be integrated into their way of living for the rest of their lives. That’s one of the things that I always hope will come out of this.
Q: I’M VERY INTERESTED IN WHY YOU CHOSE GATEWAY STEM FOR THE SERVICE PROJECT. WILL YOU HAVE A CONTINUING RELATIONSHIP AFTER THIS WEEKEND?
I especially like doing things in and around schools that have a community impact. And I liked Gateway STEM because it’s committed to raising the level of STEM knowledge and involvement among kids that often get left out and left behind. They were doing it in an area that was economically challenging, and so they needed our support. And the things that we needed to do could be done in a day. If there’s any way they would like ongoing involvement, then I think the best way to do it is through people at Washington University.
One of the things we’ve done through CGI itself was to make a commitment to help [President Barack Obama] meet the goal of 100,000 more STEM teachers in our schools nationwide. And we put together a partnership with more than two dozen companies and other partners. And we already have assured that we can account for almost 30,000 of that 100,000 goal with no expenditure of tax money.
Some time ago, we at Washington University formed the Institute for School Partnership, led by Vicky May, and a heavy component of STEM education is included in our initiative. We have outreach programs to science teachers and math teachers in public schools in the region. And we’ll certainly be following up with Gateway STEM.