The University of Virginia kicked off its first-ever Presidential Ideas Festival Tuesday with insights into the executive office from former diplomats and dignitaries and an announcement of a new umbrella institute at UVa to promote democracy.
“It’s clear that we can’t take the existence of democracy for granted, which is why we’re gathered here today,” said UVa President Jim Ryan during opening remarks. “We all have a role to play as citizens, elected officials, business leaders, members of the media.”
In his speech, Ryan officially announced an Institute of Democracy that will try to study and support that system of government, saying UVa has its own role to uphold in forming a “more perfect union.”
“If we do all this, I believe that UVa will be rightly known as the leading place in the country, if not the world, to study, learn and teach democracy and more importantly, democracies everywhere will be more strong for it,” said Ryan, who added that the project is still in its early stages.
In addition to academic departments, UVa hosts several policy, leadership and public affairs think tanks that sometimes conduct overlapping projects and seek fundraising from some of the same sources, including the fledgling Democracy Initiative, which was launched by the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in September.
An umbrella Institute for Democracy might allow for coordination and enact central oversight of that time and money. UVa has been looking for ways to organize programming and fundraising for its various institutes and centers, according to multiple employees familiar with discussions.
In an email statement, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Archie Holmes, who has been helping coordinate the project, said the institute would include the College of Arts & Sciences’ Democracy Initiative, Miller Center, the Center for Politics, the Karsh Center for Law and Democracy, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the Weldon Cooper Center, the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership and Morven.
“It is unique at UVa in that it was not funded by a single donor or launched by a single faculty member but rather formed through a wide-reaching collaborative effort,” Holmes said. “As the Institute develops — including finalizing a timeline, a workplan, and selecting the issues and topics the Institute will focus on — we plan to engage additional departments and programs across Grounds.”
According to remarks on Tuesday, the effort is a fitting kickoff for the festival, which will bring former politicians, officials and pundits to UVa over the course of three days to discuss various aspects of the presidency and its effect on Americans. The festival was hosted by the nonpartisan Miller Center of Public Affairs and the College’s Democracy Initiative.
“I am in fact very pleased to hear that this great university is going to have a Democracy Institute,” said Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, during a panel discussion. Albright is chair of the National Democracy Institute, a national, nonpartisan organization founded in 1983 to strengthen democracies across the world.
Albright participated in a keynote panel with Stephen Hadley, a national security advisor under former President George W. Bush. It was moderated by John Dickerson, a correspondent for CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
Their discussion centered around national security, diplomacy and the president’s influence on foreign affairs. Albright and Hadley spoke about their experiences with several administrations and offered insight into the Trump administration’s priorities and decision-making.
A president, Albright said, should have a vision for America’s role in the world, an understanding of the national sacrifice required to help others and a willingness to convey that sacrifice to the American people without acting like a victim.
“A president has to be able to identify what the issues are and then be the magical person that can identify how the American people will act to it, and not play off people’s fears,” she said. “I don’t think America should be a country where fear is a governing factor; hope is a governing factor, and I think the president has to know that.”
For foreign affairs and security officials, President Trump’s administration can be tough because he doesn’t like the standard processes of government, Hadley said. Trump doesn’t want to be constrained by the standard administrative decision-making processes, policies, or precedents, Hadley said.
That push against process is what made Trump attractive to his base, Hadley said, and may offer some solutions in long-term problem spots, such as nuclear disarmament in Iran and North Korea and trade practices with China.
“Three administrations, the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, the Obama administration, did this bottom up laborious process and got agreements with North Korea, and none of those administrations were able to keep North Korea in those agreements,” he said. “The [Trump] administration has a different approach, let’s give it a shot, but obviously prepare for the worst if that should be the hand that we have to play.”
To close, Albright pointed to her eagle brooch, one she wore, she said in response to an audience question, to remind her of the values of America that she had held since she was a refugee from Czechoslovakia. Values, she said, that she often reaffirmed by helping at naturalization ceremonies, including one at Monticello in 2000 where she handed a fellow former refugee his certificate.
“Can you believe a refugee is Secretary of State?” she said, smiling. “That is what America is all about.”
Event registration is full but those interested in the festival can see the full schedule and watch panel discussions and keynote speeches online at millercenter.org/prezfest2019.