Policy-makers turned lecturers in seminars

By Todd Feathers | The Huntington News | September 20, 2012

Of the hundreds of classes held at Northeastern each semester, only one attracts nationally renowned professors, economists, politicians and chief executives on a weekly basis.

Held in the basement of West Village F every Wednesday night, this semester’s open classroom series, entitled Policy Advice to the President, has a schedule of speakers that include Michael Dukakis, former Democratic nominee for president and professor of political science at Northeastern; Greg Mankiw, economic policy adviser to Mitt Romney; Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs and many more.

The open classroom, designed as a graduate-level class in the school of Public Policy and Urban affairs, is unusual in two ways: It’s open to anyone who wants to attend, and it’s free.

“I really think the university should use its resources, the facilities and the people to benefit the community,” Barry Bluestone, Dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and co-moderator of the class, said.

The open classroom series began in 2008 when Bluestone began teaching a graduate course that attracted so few students he decided to open it to the public. The topic changes every year, and the attendance has been steadily growing.

“It’s gotten to the point, and we’ve received such popularity, that we can really attract some star speakers,” Bluestone said. Attendance has jumped from around 30 people the first year to nearly 150 last year, he said.

“I’ve been to every session so far,” Grace Healey, 69, who has no affiliation to the university, said. “I drive 25 miles to get here. I’m just interested in the issues that are being discussed. Certainly Larry Summers [former U.S. secretary of the treasury] and Glen Mankiw [Romney’s economic adviser] were very impressive. The subject matter is what you come for.”

This year’s session focuses on economic, foreign and social policy advice for whoever the next president is.

“We are at a critical juncture right now in our country,” Setti Warren, Mayor of Newton and co-moderator of the class, said. “The discussions that are being had in this election will have an impact here and around the country.”

Bluestone said he and the other moderators tried to assemble a group of speakers that would present a wide variety of opinions on a range of different issues.

“We have a spectrum of views because we want our students to understand a wide variety of opinions,” Bluestone said. “The major theme is to try and explore a variety of public policy options that the president, whoever he may be in November, could pursue.”

The wide assortment of different opinions is also reflected in the class’ audience, who spend the second half of the two hour class questioning the speakers and each other.

“More often than not it’s more of the middle-aged group who ask the questions,” Jeff Newton, a sophomore philosophy major, said. “But last week there was a high school student who asked a pretty good question about health care and a bunch of students speak out too.”

Bluestone said in the 40 years he has been teaching, he’s never enjoyed a class more than the open classroom series, primarily because of the mix of students it attracts.

“We have people as guest students who work for the mayor, work for businesses and we also have people who come from the public housing homes down the street,” he said.

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