CU’s annual Conference on World Affairs brings international flair to Boulder campus

Author: Miller Hudson - April 25, 2014 - Updated: April 25, 2014


Each spring, shortly before final exams, the Conference on World Affairs schedules a week-long program of forums, panels, speakers and cultural performances across the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. This year’s edition was the 66th outing for the CWA. Originally designed as a town meets gown opportunity for the larger community, the Conference was also created to provide a little international flair to what was then surely an obscure and backwater center of higher learning in flyover country. Over the years, the event has attracted a star power roster of regular participants that has included regulars like Molly Ivins, Roger Ebert and hot button speakers like Sandra Fluke, of contraceptive coverage fame, and Sarah Shourd, one of the three hikers who spent a year in an Iranian prison for trespassing. While panelists must reside outside Colorado, moderators include a sprinkling of local illuminati and assorted dignitaries.

A highlight of the week is the Tuesday evening jazz concert, which features both national and international musicians usually herded along by Boulder graduates Don and Dave Grusin. Just getting in the doors at Macky Auditorium can require a certain amount of string pulling. A decade ago, when I first attended, very few students participated or attended these sessions, but a concerted effort has changed that mix and undergraduates now get first crack at questioning panelists. The mix of topics is about as eclectic as you can imagine, ranging from the sublime to the bizarre: try “Solving World Poverty” and “Sex: Just do it (or not).” Although the latter panel produced an enlightening exchange when a young man asked what geeky young men, who don’t know how to communicate with women, should do if they wanted a sexual relationship? Clare Murphy, a writer and artist from Ireland, asked in apparent astonishment, “Are you asking for my advice on how to get laid?” Following a ripple of laughter she was rescued by the reality TV producer Howard Schultz, also a CU graduate, who asked, “Why is it that as a father I am expected to instruct my daughters on how to protect themselves? Why should they be taking self-defense classes? Wouldn’t it make more sense if young men were required to take classes teaching them not to rape their dates?” The predominantly female audience erupted in a standing ovation before the discussion quieted down and moved on to the next question.

There were three panels that produced interesting political insights. Former Colorado Congressman David Skaggs moderated “Negotiating with Iran: An Opening or a Trojan Horse?” Three foreign policy experts joined Sarah Shourd in reaching a virtually unanimous opinion, despite their considerable divergence in political points of view. They concluded this was one of those rare occasions when we can “…view the hinges of history swinging” the world towards an entirely new set of international arrangements. It was their consensus that Iran has emerged as the only stable democracy in the Middle East and that its new leadership has concluded it makes more sense to build a trusting relationship with the United States than to rely on regional alliances. While both nations have their own indigenous tea party factions that will oppose any such rapprochement, it was predicted that a successful resolution of the nuclear enrichment conflict would likely expand into a longer term economic and policy partnership between our two countries, where we jointly assume the role of “adults” in a dangerous neighborhood. Really? Wow!

“Tea time is Over: The GOP Civil War,” moderated by Scott Schaefer and featuring four national Republican campaign operatives, who attempted to assure their audience that the party’s internal conflicts would be fully resolved by 2016, fell to squabbling over the suitability of Jeb Bush as a presidential candidate. Two viewed him as the Galahad on a white horse who could ride in and weld together the warring factions in the GOP, while the other two viewed him as stale news from another planet. When Robert George, editorial page editor for the New York Post and formerly with the Republican National Committee staff, asked the Republicans in the audience to raise their hands, a surprising third of the crowd did so. Their presence surprised nearly everyone, although this fraction actually reflects Republicans’ statewide portion of the Colorado electorate. It was more their willingness to identify themselves in Boulder that shocked.

The panel conceded that Hillary Clinton would prove a formidable opponent for Republicans, but reminded its audience that the Democratic presidential bench is very shallow — touting the appeal of Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, or even the currently damaged Chris Christie, if Democrats are required to search elsewhere for a candidate. A reminder that this was still Boulder, however, came in response to an inquiry about global warming from a student. As the panel commenced to discount the seriousness, even the reality, of climate change they were blasted with a wave of booing that evidently included most of the Boulder Republicans in attendance.

During a later session titled, “Dealing with the Effects of Climate Change,” it was surprising that little support was expressed for extensive, nationwide programs or policy initiatives. Yes, the panelists believed we need to move to a more sustainable, renewable energy future, but they argued this transition would most likely emerge from a bottom-up, grassroots reshaping of our communities and habits. In fact, their message was to begin attending your local homeowners meetings, zoning hearings and traffic planning sessions. In light of the recent outburst of public antipathy towards the U.S. 36, tolled lane proposal in Boulder, which has been thoroughly debated for nearly a decade, it’s hard to be sanguine about the chances of overwhelming municipal planners with a tide of public participation. Small ‘d’ democracy isn’t a very appealing proposition these days. That of course is, in part, because large ‘D’ democracy hasn’t been working so well either in Washington or Denver.

Denver Democrat Kip Cheroutes reports that Denver City Auditor Dennis Gallagher’s turn as moderator for a panel discussing Nobel prizewinner Seamus Heaney’s poetry was fascinating. There really is something for everyone at the CWA. Try and catch a few sessions next year. It will prove a pleasant change of pace after March Madness.

Miller Hudson writes about politics and policy for The Colorado Statesman.

Miller Hudson

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