Faculty Focus – The Institute of Politics (IOP)


Rep Clark with Liaisons DSC_0446By Simon R. Bone

The IOP is well known for bringing some of the biggest names in politics to speak at HKS for its world famous forum events but there is a lot more going on at its Littauer headquarters. We spoke to IOP director Trey Grayson to find out more about the Institute, its work and how it relates to the Harvard Kennedy School.

What would you say the IOP’s mission is.

Firstly to inspire students to take up careers in politics and public service.  Secondly to bridge the gap between academic and political worlds. This is particularly important to HKS as we have fellows here all semester long who help faculty teach students what it’s like in the professional world. We’re  extra-curricular, not just a research center.

Tell us about the history of the IOP

The IOP is a living memorial to President Kennedy. The idea spawned shortly after the President’s death during discussions about where to build a library and museum to honor the President’s life and house his papers. The original plans were for the library, museum and IOP to be at Harvard at the present location of the Kennedy School. We were opened in 1966 in a little yellow house on Mt. Auburn Street, but ultimately the library and museum were built on Columbia Point on Boston Harbor. We moved into the new Littauer building with the rest of the Kennedy School when it opened.

Who have been your favourite speakers over the years?

There have been too many great people to name a favorite. However I do love the combinations we sometimes manage to put on here. Last year we had Aung San Suu Kyi and straight after Cristina Fernández de Kirchner,  too very different female political figures, and recently we had John McCain one night and Rand Paul the next.

Who’s been the worst speaker?

Believe it or not they’ve all been great. But some heads of state come with big travelling parties

Or particular security requirements which can be challenging.

How do you select your speakers? If there anyone you particularly want to appear in the forum?

Luckily we never have a shortage of willing speakers. In September, when the United Nations meet, we often have a flurry of heads of state wishing to appear. One evening last year we even had to fit the President of Colombia and Prime Minister of Norway onto the same bill. If there was anyone I’d like to see on our stage it would be have to be Hilary Clinton as we have been trying to secure her for several years now (Hilary, if you are reading this please contact The Citizen and we can make this happen!).

Why are young people disinterested in politics? Has it always been this way?

I’d say it goes in ebbs and flows. In 2008 we saw a surge in interest for Obama’s campaign and before that right after 9/11. The surveys we’ve held of 18-29 year old young Americans have shown that they believe in community service but don’t trust government, media or major institutions. The military is still trusted more than the NSA though which is amazingly trusted even more than Wall Street

What opportunities with the IOP are there for our readers they might not know about?

Other than the our Forum events which are hard to miss I’d say our study groups. Each semester we have six resident fellows who hold study groups of  40-60 (vs. 700 in the Forum) on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 4pm. We also have lot of amazing video content online on our website. Finally we are always keen to speak to HKS students about becoming mentors of undergraduates.

What plans does the for IOP have for its future?

Well there is the US presidential election coming up in 2016 which will mean we will have a lot of candidates coming to the Forum. We also have the 50th anniversary of the IOP in spring 2016 so look out for a big conference to celebrate that milestone.

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