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Institute of Politics and Global Affairs Wrestles with Today’s Thorniest Issues

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By Joe Wilensky

As part of a Cornell Institute of Politics and Global Affairs webinar in March 2021, former President Bill Clinton spoke about the state of democracy, noting that the U.S. was at a “fairly perilous point in our democratic journey—we’re in a dogfight.”

“We’ve always been divided, and we’ll always have differences of opinion,” Clinton said. “But we need to find a way to get enough of each other together to work together.”

The event—at which Clinton took questions submitted by an online audience and stayed on to hear a panel of Cornell faculty experts discuss the challenges of inclusive politics—was part of the institute’s ambitious first two years of programming.

Former Rep. Steve Israel, left, director of Cornell’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs, chats with former national security adviser Stephen Hadley ’69 at the 2019 Olin Lecture in Bailey Hall
IOPGA director and former U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (left) introduces former national security adviser Stephen Hadley ’69 at the 2019 Olin Lecture in Bailey Hall. (Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University)

Launched in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the institute (known as IOPGA for short) aims to help develop and nurture the next generation of public servants. It offers programs—which are free and open to all—that delve deeply into complex issues and events, stress bipartisanship, and raise understanding of domestic and international affairs.

In addition to supporting an undergraduate scholars program, it has hosted dozens of discussions with current and former politicians and policymakers and brought Congresspeople from both sides of the aisle together to work on crisis simulations and cybersecurity.

“Our sweet spot is giving members of Congress, policymakers, and the Cornell community an opportunity to deepen discourse, raise understanding, and find common ground in an exceedingly polarized and tribalized environment,” says IOPGA’s director, Steve Israel, who served as a Democratic U.S. Representative from New York from 2001–17 and calls the institute “an oasis of bipartisanship and common ground.”

While IOPGA is based in New York City, it maintains deep connections to both Washington, DC, and the Ithaca campus. Events typically draw an average of 700–1,200 participants, and more than 60 programs—virtual, in-person, and hybrid—have been held so far. (Most are archived and can be viewed online.)

We’re definitely punching above our weight.

Steve Israel

“We’re definitely punching above our weight,” Israel says, noting that not only has IOPGA met its initial charge of bringing bipartisan global and national policy leaders to interact and engage with the Cornell community, but has exceeded it—drawing such dignitaries as Clinton; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; numerous members of the House and the Senate; Reince Priebus, who served as chief of staff to former President Donald Trump; and a variety of diplomats, journalists, and authors.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at an Institute of Politics and Global Affairs event at the Cornell Club–New York City in May 2019
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at an event at the Cornell Club–New York City in May 2019. (Photo provided)

Pivoting to virtual programming during the pandemic helped raise the institute’s profile and reach, Israel says, noting its robust series of online and hybrid conferences. IOPGA has also formally joined Cornell’s Brooks School of Public Policy, which opened last fall; Israel calls it a “natural home for us.”

In 2021 alone, IOPGA held its bipartisan Congressional Peace Games in Washington, D.C., bringing together members of Congress to work on crisis simulations; launched the Campaign for the Future of Democracy, dedicated to strengthening democratic norms and resilience through counter-messaging against malevolent partisan actors, social media algorithms, and disinformation campaigns; released the second edition of its Bipartisan Policy Review, published biannually, which features pieces co-authored by Republicans and Democrats; and continued its undergraduate scholars program, which comprises students from diverse majors who are interested in public policy and service.

The institute is also continuing to reach out to Big Red alumni—a robust and diverse and global population, Israel notes—to boost awareness of its programming.

Upcoming events include a discussion of global challenges with Georgette Bennett, founder of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding (January 26); a talk about the state of American politics with journalist Bret Stephens (February 2); and a discussion with Farid Ferdows ’21, a former Afghan interpreter for the U.S. Army (March 9).

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Voices from across the political spectrum

Speaking to today’s challenges, IOPGA panel discussions and webinars have gone far beyond soundbites, grappling frankly with critical and current issues.

During the institute’s “Inside Congress” series in October 2019, U.S. Representative Adam Schiff described the challenges of what he called the ongoing struggle “between democracy and representative government, and dictatorship and autocracy,” calling it “the seminal ideological challenge of our time.”

In February 2021, former Ohio Governor John Kasich discussed bipartisanship and the need for local solutions to societal challenges. “When we work to attack a common problem, we get together and meld our differences,” he said. “We need to reflect on things that historically have brought our country together.”

Other guests have included former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Representative Peter King, and the co-chairs of the House Problem Solvers Caucus. (The latter spoke as part of an online panel just a week after the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol.)

Conversations with policymakers and experts have explored voting rights, the federal debt ceiling, the pandemic response, big money in politics, and race and justice in the U.S.

Faculty, students in key roles

While there are many institutes of politics across the country, some connected with major universities, Israel says that the IOPGA’s innovative programming, immersive activities, and agility—sometimes producing content within days of a seminal political event, such as the panel following the Capitol assault—distinguishes Cornell’s, as does its NYC metro area location.

Portrait of Anuli Ononye ’22, the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs’ first intern
Anuli Ononye ’22 is IOPGA’s first intern. (Photo provided)

The institute also prioritizes teaching and mentoring students and bringing them along into careers in public policy. “One of the platforms we provide is this intense interaction between journalists and political operatives, campaign experts, and students to help shape their careers and then place them in jobs,” Israel says.

One of those students is Anuli Ononye ’22, who also is the current Student Assembly president. She became the institute’s first intern in March 2020 and also got an internship at the D.C.-based publication The Hill that summer.

She mostly works on IOPGA’s weekly newsletter, but has also immersed herself in the issues. “In college, sometimes I’m in a bit of a liberal echo chamber,” she says. “The institute encourages me to branch out and have some of those further conversations with others from different political backgrounds, which has been really positive for me.”

Government professor Doug Kriner, IOPGA’s faculty director, maintains related programming on the Ithaca campus, where faculty use their research and expertise to speak to some of the same questions the institute tackles, thereby strengthening the institute’s connections to policy development work happening on the Hill.

We have been intensely polarized, but in multiple periods throughout American history, polarization has ebbed and flowed.

Government professor Doug Kriner

Above all, keeping a broader historical perspective in mind is key to long-term progress, Kriner says. “We have been intensely polarized, but in multiple periods throughout American history, polarization has ebbed and flowed,” he says. “To think that we are on a linear irrevocable path that will never ever change is wrong.”

IOPGA events, he notes, have brought together students from across the political divide—promoting discussions that are civil, engaged, and fact-based. Says Kriner: “That’s so critical in a university where free speech, freedom of expression, an exchange of ideas, and questioning our own prior assumptions is such an important part of our mission.”

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University.

Published: January 11, 2022


  1. Bruce Waxman, Class of 1964

    At this point in time, in today’s political climate, with real indications that our democracy is under serious threat of authoritarianism, the IOPGA is beyond naive and is a dangerous distraction from the real work that needs to be done to save the republic..

  2. Roger M. Davis, Class of 1978

    The IOPGA appears to be yet another “think-tank” promoting neo-liberalism, liberalism views, or the same form of “Educational Elitist Industrial Complex” constructs or theorists that got us here (2022) in the first place. Once again, the IOPGA starts off with the “top to bottom” (like Davos, WTO, G8) mentality that ignores the “grassroots” or just sees them as victims needing the parental guidance of the elites. Did anyone ask Clinton/Bush where all the millions raised in support of Haiti (after the earthquake) went? So how is Haiti still the most impoverished nation in our hemisphere and most recently experiences even more tragic events including Haitians fleeing to the US Border only to be driven back by whip wielding Border police?

    In the early 2000s I enrolled at the Korea University Graduate School of International Studies where I saw how the same above paradigm homogenizes academics globally. The western hegemon in globalization being bolstered by international financial capitalism will not find solutions to pandemics, or conflict.

    I sense the IOPGA will depend on those same corporates for grants or their foundations which reinforces the mediocre rather than the paradigm shift in global thinking so necessary for real change.
    Perhaps, these “comments” won’t be “approved” but I needed to write it anyway because the voices of African-American radicals (like myself) seldom are heard except if they kowtow to the mainstream thought. Thus, the IOPGA perhaps is following the (Professional Golf Association-PGA) as a venue for grooming a new round of elites. Just like for decades we highlight Dr. MLK, Jr. and negate Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Fred Hampton, Kwame Nkrumah, Haile Selassie, or Marcus Garvey — each of whom were prolific global thinkers.

    Anyway, good luck in your endeavors with the hope you become more inclusive.

  3. Kevin Bruns, Class of 1979

    Is that the same Newt Gingrich who this week called for the jailing of Reps. Liz Cheney, Jamie Raskin, Adam Kinzinger and other members of the House committee investigating the storming of the Capitol? Today’s highly partisan, destroy-the-institution-to-win Republican party can be traced directly to Gingrich.

  4. Stephen DeVos, Class of 2005

    I was hopeful that the IOPGA might be a voice for bi-partisan discussion and not be a Ms. Onoyne eloquently noted a place for learning outside of the liberal echo chamber. Unfortunately, this article highlights the fundamental problem with the IOPGA as it fails to really engage serious people on the right and it’s Council of Advisors is dominated by leftist. How can the IOPGA be seen as engaging bi-partisanship when it’s programming contains Congreswomen Pelosi and Adam Schiff, two of the most divisive people in Washington. The quote “Conservative “ voices (Kasich, Preibus and Stevens) are not credible to anyone on the right in the US. If this effort wants engage in serious issues, meet with Leader McCarthy, Congressman Scalise or Senators Barrasso and Blunt. I hope Cornell genuinely strives to do the greatest good by engaging all Americans in our country and not just half.

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