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With St. Louis visit, Bill Clinton hopes to spark students to act on big ideas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 3, 2013 - President Bill Clinton is no stranger to Washington University. The private university was home to the first presidential debate in 1992, when the then-Arkansas governor squared off in a rhetorical showdown with incumbent President George H.W. Bush and Texas businessman Ross Perot. Less than a month later, Clinton would defeat both men to become the nation’s 42nd president.

Flash forward nearly 20 years later and Clinton is coming back to Washington University -- but this time for a decidedly different reason.

The former chief executive will be in town from April 5-7 to convene a Clinton Global Initiative University, an event bringing some of the world’s most prominent thinkers together with hundreds of college students from around the country. Many of the students have ideas aimed at solving problems in the United States -- and around the world.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Clinton said that 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,” Clinton said. “They’ve been a terrific partner. I’m very grateful. And I want to say a special thanks for your long-standing commitment to prepare students to be public service-oriented through the Gephardt Institute of Public Service and other on-campus organizations.”

Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton said in the conference call that the event is expected to attract about 1,000 college students from all 50 states and 75 countries. He added that the conference is “not only stimulating great ideas about how to address the world’s problems, but perhaps most important it’s a venue to implement these great ideas.”

“As we all know, there are tremendous global challenges that confront us,” Wrighton said. “And this conference is one that is going to help us not only prepare young people to address these problems, but I believe will heighten interest and expand the impact of the Clinton Global Initiative.”

The major topics of the sixth annual gathering include improving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, combating human trafficking, and stopping prescription drug misuse among college students. Besides Bill and Chelsea Clinton, Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and actress Jada Pinkett-Smith are scheduled to appear this weekend’s event.

One of the main events, so to speak, will be Saturday, when comedian Stephen Colbert is slated to interview Bill Clinton. The exchange between the two men will air later this month on "The Colbert Report," the popular news-comedy show on Comedy Central.

“There will be a little hijinks, too, because Stephen Colbert’s coming,” Clinton quipped. “And goodness knows what he’ll say.”

Both Clinton and Wrighton spent the rest of the conference call answering questions from reporters. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Many of the students aren’t short on ideas. What are the challenges in getting their ideas going?

Clinton: Normally when they make a commitment like this, they have enough resources to get started. But one of the things that I’ve been working on is trying to find a way to find CGIU a crowd-funding partner. More and more projects like this are being funded in a very transparent way by large numbers of smaller donors, and we see it in areas big and small.

When the Haiti earthquake hit, a billion dollars was given. The median contribution was $25 because you could donate through text; you could type in Haiti on your cell phone and it would direct you to a charity. It took the median contribution down to like $26 or $27. So I think what I’m trying to do is figure out if there’s some way – a disciplined way – to connect these ideas to the crowd-funding marketplace, so at least a fair number of them could get funding in that way.

Wrighton: 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 31 other colleges and universities in it. And these institutions can provide some of the infrastructure to execute what’s needed for these ideas.

Clinton: Thank you, chancellor, for saying that. We have more of a commitment from schools in our networks to support some of these ideas off the ground, at least giving them seed capital. In past years, we were able to get sponsors. For several years, the Wal-Mart Foundation gave us money to fund these start-ups. And what we’re trying to do now by getting the universities themselves involved is to guarantee that a higher percentage of our projects will actually have a chance to be tested out.

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, our students from South Asia – one of our teams, they were students from a Texas college from what I remember -- pointed out that the nutritional subsistence used to give to babies born with HIV so they could take medicine and then that medicine would adhere to their bodies and work was based off a peanut. African kids liked it and south Asian kids couldn’t stand it. So they developed an alternative. This is something that has the potential to affect literally millions of people and save tens of thousands of lives. But they needed to start to prove that they could do it.

So somebody gave them a little bit of help. And they got started. That’s the sort of thing that I hope will happen with these start-up commitments that the university network has committed to provide.

Student debt in America is up considerably in the last seven years. Given CGI’s history of backing online education, what role do you think non-traditional online education could play in driving down the cost of tuition in the U.S.?

Clinton: It depends in part on what shape it takes. A lot of universities are now participating in some way in these online courses. … There’s at least one virtual graduate school in America – Walden – that’s based in Minnesota. And they’re essentially online instruction and they’ve had very good results in the programs where they’ve offered courses.

The whole delivery system is in the process of changing. But there has to be some way of saying which online courses actually give you what you need to know to be certified or to be degreed in areas x, y and z. ... But I think that you’re going to see a dramatic change in the delivery system because we simply can’t continue to have the cost of university education going to twice the rate of inflation every decade when wages are flat and the aid programs are not keeping up.

Now the student loan reform plan passed Congress a couple of years ago and was signed by the president, which allows students who get federal student loans here to pay them back as a fixed percentage of their income. That will help. But a lot of people have student debt that goes beyond the federal student loan program. So I think the only sustainable answer is to find a less expensive delivery system.

And it’s become more urgent because so many of the public schools have lost a lot of their public aid because of the budget problems in the various states. I think the next big step is for somebody to sort and certify what you need to know. And then, figure out a way to validate the merits of these online courses. ... It looks to me that more and more of our universities are trying to work out a model where they mix the in-classroom and the online experience.

One of the issues that will be discussed this weekend will be prescription drug abuse. From your perspective, what should local and state governments be doing about this problem? And what should educational institutions be doing about this issue?

Clinton: First of all, this is a big issue for me. Within a 10-day period about a year-and-a-half ago, two sons of two of my friends died because they took an Oxycontin pill after drinking three or four beers. They fell asleep and never woke up.

And one of them asked our Health Matters Initiative to take it on. It’s a different part of my foundation. So we are working on this very hard. [Vinod Gupta and I] participated in a special that Dr. Sanjay Gupta and I did on CNN.

Every institution of higher education should make sure that 100 percent of its students understand that you can’t mix these painkillers with alcohol – because they deaden the part of your brain that tells your body to breathe when you’re asleep. I mean, just basic ‘don’t let somebody die for nothing’ information is still a mystery to a lot of people. I think that’s important. I think it’s important that this message gets out to students in high school. I think it’s important that it gets out to working people who never went to college. You’ve got to get the message out.

Secondly, we have to crack down on the bad actors. And then we have to figure out how to have some national uniformity. Florida and California have terrible problems, and they’ve begun to crack down on them. It’s like any other sort of medical abuse: A lot of suppliers come from a relatively small amount of abusers. So Florida’s finally begun to crack down on its problem. And a lot of people are just going over the border into Georgia where they haven’t confronted so much of the problem and they have laxer enforcement. We need an approach that’s embraced by the whole country.

This is just insanity to see all these young people in their 20s and 30s dying because of abuses that would relatively easy to correct. Now some of them get addicted for all the reasons – they’ve done a thousand studies on this. But a lot of it is just plain ignorance and feeding a system that’s just madness.

On Sunday, CGIU particpants are planning to work on several restorative projects and facility updates at Gateway STEM High School. Why did you choose that school? And will the relationship with that school continue after this weekend?

Clinton: 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.

So, it all worked.  They were doing something we believed in – preparing more kids for the STEM field. 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 some ongoing involvement, then I think the best way to do it is to do it through people at Washington University who are interested in this. And then we in the CGIU network could continue to be involved and helpful in any way we could.

I certainly wouldn’t mind doing that. One of the things we’ve done through the Clinton Global Initiative itself was to make a commitment to help [President Barack Obama] meet the goal of 100,000 more STEM teachers in our school nationwide. And we put together a partnership with over 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 dollars.

I’m looking forward to going there, but I have never even talked to the people at the school. So we’ll just see. And if they have some ideas about what we can be involved on an ongoing basis, I’d be happy to talk to them about it.

Wrighton: Some time ago, we at Washington University formed the Institute for School Partnership. This is 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.

It’s been nearly 50 years, President Clinton, since you met then-President John F. Kennedy in the White House. 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?

Clinton: For one thing, it had a big impact on me in a funny way. Once you’re around anything that you might want to do, you can imagine doing it. I think that it’s different now. But at least having all these young people come to CGIU, I think it might 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.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.