Over the last three years, the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies has returned to its role as a sponsor of political debates. Last semester, McCormack teamed up with The Boston Globe and WBUR to bring Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie to campus for a democratic gubernatorial debate. A few months later, the same team brought Michael Capuano and Ayanna Pressley on campus for a Congressional debate. Next up: Secretary of State William Galvin and his challenger, Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim, debating at the UMass Club downtown, also before a live audience. The team organizing these debates is led by Dean Cash, Research Fellow Bob Turner and Rashelle Brown, McCormack’s events planner. McCormack Speaks sat down with Dean Cash to learn more about the behind-the-scenes work.
SA: Where did the idea to host these debates come from?
DC: There is actually a strong history of political debates at UMass Boston. The first debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 was at the Clark Athletic Center here, and there have been others. When I became dean, I felt that policy-focused political debates were central to the school’s role as an active citizen. Fortunately, through the work of Bob Turner, senior fellow at MGS, we were able to create a strong partnership with two of Boston’s leading news institutions, the Boston Globe and WBUR.
SA: What kind of reactions have you gotten from the public, candidates, UMB community, etc.?
DC: Universally, the reaction has been positive, primarily, I think, because the questioners are first-rate and we have focused on issues that are distinctive, and sometimes controversial, but based on policy differences more than personal ones. It has also been gratifying that the candidates themselves have seen these events as substantive, well-run, and an opportunity to engage in civic and civil discourse.
SA: What has been surprising about hosting these debates?
DC: Virtually without exception, the debaters – whether candidates for high political office or advocates for policy issues on the ballot – have been extremely knowledgeable, well-prepared, and articulate. This is not very surprising, but the level of talent and commitment in our civic life is impressive. I think nearly everyone who attended left the hall encouraged that, in Boston, at least, our public life is in good hands.
SA: Do you have a favorite moment from any of the debates?
DC: Most of the debates have been held here on the UMB campus, and it has been terrific to see how the turnout has grown steadily. One thing we have included in each debate has been the chance for students or other school personal to ask a question, either submitted in advance and asked from the floor, or sent over social media. Creating this opportunity for direct participation in our democracy has definitely been a highlight.
SA: How do you see sponsorship of these debates as connecting to the values and mission of MGS?
DC: Not for nothing, are we the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. John McCormack served 48 years in Congress, and nine as speaker. His deserved reputation as a doer – one who successfully advanced the interests of poor people in housing, health care, and retirement income – is a steady beacon to our school. And another, for sure, is his deserved reputation as a powerful debater.
SA: Are there plans for future debates? Do you see this as something that MGS will continue hosting?
DC: Definitely. There is real value in the debate of important public issues both for the general public and for the school. We couldn’t hold that belief more strongly. Our presence as the academic arm, with the Globe and WBUR, has helped build a powerful partnership that has grown more professional and effective in each of its three years, and promises to remain engaged.
SA: Anything else you would like to convey about the debates that hasn’t been covered by these questions?
DC: As the graduate policy school within Boston’s only public research university, we have unique resources, and a unique challenge. We can and do create learning, but we also have the obligation to spread it, near and far. We have a role – and I would argue a responsibility – to convene these kinds of debates to show that information, persuasion, passion, research and ideas play an important role in democracy.