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Making democracy safe for the world

What made a three-day gathering of 50-some public figures and scholars, meeting at the University to discuss the political, social, and environmental demands on today's democracies, different from any other conference or symposium? It wasn't simply the conference's ambitious topic, summed up in its title: "The Challenge of Modern Democracy."

Nor was it merely the fact that the April 9-11 event, staged in the Max Palevsky Theater, was broadcast via the World Wide Web and C-Span. Or that the participants included a range of luminaries from Francis Cardinal George, the Archbishop of Chicago, to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president of Haiti. Or even that the program included sessions focusing on nine fields with issues and questions that are inseparable from those facing modern democracies: economics, religion, the environment, public health, education, law, computing, human rights, and the media.

No, what made headlines was the fact that the conference was completely student-run and the brainchild of two students in the College: Renato Mariotti, '98, and Rohit Khanna, '98.

Mariotti, a political-science concentrator from Chicago, and Khanna, an economics concentrator from suburban Philadelphia, are the first to admit that the conference didn't end up quite they way they'd envisioned it, two years earlier, during a late-night conversation over a stuffed spinach pizza. Back then, they'd wanted to plan a conference that would disprove the perception that students, as members of "Generation X," lack political convictions. But, as Khanna and Mariotti explained in the conference literature, when they began to put together a program that would assemble contemporary leaders and thinkers, they realized that "student apathy was a symbol of a much larger dilemma": the fact that as the world becomes more and more complex, decision-making is often relegated to the "experts."

Thus, as Mariotti told the Chicago Maroon, they began to plan the conference as a "kind of investigation" to see whether such reliance upon experts is itself undemocratic.

Fittingly enough, although the students got lots of advice from University administrators and faculty along the way-Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund professor of law and ethics, chaired a 21-person faculty advisory group-they ended up doing most of the work themselves. That meant hundreds of hours spent drawing up lists of panelists, writing letters of invitation, and calling upon foundations and corporations for support.

In the end, Khanna and Mariotti raised $120,000, including support from the MacArthur and Spencer foundations and United Airlines, as well as underwriting from a number of University divisions and groups. Also, true to the nature of the enterprise, each conference session featured a question-and-answer period, giving both the on-site audience and those following the event via World Wide Web the chance to participate.

Did the organizers accomplish all they'd hoped? Rohit Khanna thinks they at least made one thing clear. As he told the Chicago Tribune, "If two students could put together something like this, then I think it shows that probably any citizen could-if they really wanted to-make a difference."-M.R.Y.

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