Last week, the University of Connecticut community learned on Tuesday that the President of the United States would be visiting the Storrs campus on Friday. This immediately dominated conversations all over campus, and also piqued my curiosity. A quick google search informed me that this was UConn’s fourth visit from a president in its history, with the list including Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, with the latter two being the only to visit while in office. This article is going to focus on those two, as they not only share being in office in common, but they both came for exactly the same purpose: the dedication of the Dodd Center.
For starters, it’s really important to remember that the primary purpose for having a university in the first place should be for the education of students enrolled. Schools can have a myriad of other functions, but none of these should inhibit the first goal. A visit from a sitting U.S. President, with all of the factors involved, provides a significant interference, and in order to justify this, there should be a very valid reason.
When Bill Clinton came to UConn in 1995 for the purpose of dedicating the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, The Daily Campus featured many articles about the event, just as we did this past week. One I would particularly like to highlight, however, was titled “An open letter to the President” by the Editorial Board. It started out by saying “Yesterday you visited our campus, and brought with you the prestige of the nation’s top office, national and state dignitaries, and the Secret Service. Life as a UConn student was temporarily disrupted as your presence took precedence over campus matters.” It concluded with the statement: “It just would have been rewarding to be included in the preparation so all students could have truly celebrated your presence and not dreaded it.”
These two statements could have very easily, with slight adjustments, been addressed to Biden. Walking outside of one’s dorm and seeing snipers staring down from the top of a building was more than enough to emphasize just how much Biden’s presence took precedence over that of the students. For the second statement, it’s amazing that even in 1995, where the community was given over a month to prepare, and the president held a symposium in Gampel Pavilion that students were welcome to attend, the attitude of the students was that they were not involved enough. This time around, Biden kept things even more closed off than last time. There was no event, whether in Gampel or otherwise, for the students to interact with the nation’s leader, and while students were invited to the dedication ceremony, this wasn’t an open forum for questions.
Alongside the fact that both events were on college campuses but did not necessarily openly include the student body, both visits were met with protest. In 1995, the Daily Campus chronicled a rally for the legalization of cannabis that occurred during Clinton’s visit. Both this protest, and the sit-in held in protest of Biden’s presence at a human rights event, received university pushback, as UConn used guidelines to prevent “Operation 4:20” from organizing officially and also used hoses to erase protest chalk that had been put out before Biden’s arrival.
The ultimate similarity between the two visits is that human rights, due to the nature of the Dodd Center, has always been central. What becomes problematic about this is that neither Clinton nor Biden have spotless records on human rights. When having an event that’s going to disturb the lives of every member of the community, there needs to be a good reason. Is having an incredibly visible figure come to campus worth all the trouble if their presence doesn’t even really fit the circumstances of the event?
What happened at the Dodd Center, whether it was in 1995 or 2021, was a photo op. It ignored the fact that a school exists on this site, and made it blatantly clear that if America’s aristocracy wants to hold a glorified networking event on the grounds of a public school, it’s expected of the people that actually populate that area to get out of the way.