Although most of us have heard of think tanks, many may not understand exactly what they do, let alone the amount of influence they exert on public policy and opinion. On November 2, Dr. Samuel Gregg from the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty explained the purpose and structure of think tanks to a group of University of Dallas students.
A Catholic priest and a layman began the Acton Institute 26 years ago with the goal of providing sound thinking in economics to religious organizations around the world. “Our founders felt that within the Church, there was not a good understanding of free market economics,” Gregg said.
The core of the Acton Institute’s scholarship is based on Natural Law Theory. “Most economists don’t know anything about natural law,” he said. “And most philosophers and theologians don’t know a lot about economics. Think tanks can help overcome gaps like these.”
Gregg explained that most think tanks have a three-ringed structure consisting of scholars, programs and media relations. The innermost ring and core of most think tanks consists of a team of scholars who research and write about issues important to the organization’s mission. Outside
the inner circle is usually a program group whose responsibility to organize and run events like meetings and conferences. The final, outward-facing group consists of a media department that presents the ideas of the think tank to the public and other important constituencies like government and industry. “This is a very important part of the Acton Institute’s vision,” Gregg said. “Because so many people get information through visual media, the Acton institute has produced three documentaries and two 8-hour curriculums.”
Gregg said that a think tank’s focus can vary, depending on its mission. “Many, like the Heritage Foundation, are focused on shaping legislation. Groups like the American Enterprise Institute are heavily focused on scholarship,” he said. “Others, like the Atlas Foundation, are think tanks that help other people set up think tanks.” A think tank’s focus, in turn, will determine the extent of its various activities. For example, organizations that focus heavily on impacting legislation will be located in Washington D.C. to be close to political entities. The Acton Institute, located Grand Rapids, Michigan, has chosen to focus on the spread of ideas rather than on promoting specific legislation.
Because promoting its ideas is at the core of any think tank’s mission, Gregg said that an ability to communicate clearly and effectively is essential to landing a job at a think tank. “Even the scholars who are heavily into research have media training,” Gregg said. “They have to be able to deal with journalists.”
While scholars usually have PhDs, Gregg said that there are many positions within most think tanks that don’t require advanced degrees. Areas like program development, media relations and development (fundraising) are open to college graduates from a variety of majors. “For the most part, think tanks are looking for young people who are engaged by ideas at a time in their lives when they have the energy to follow them.”
Gregg said that the Acton Institute hires 20-30 interns each year and rotates them through different departments within the organization. “By moving from department to department, interns can see the world of a think tank from the inside,” he said. “It’s really a process of discernment.”
According to Gregg, successful Acton Institute internship applicants are usually not shy, have lots of energy, and enjoy speaking in public. “And they have to be good writers,” he added. “They’re not writing for other academics.”
Gregg said that because most think tanks require their interns to do some kind of writing, students interested in a career at one should try to hone those skills. “Read a lot of good writers,” he said. “Ask yourself what makes them interesting. And the more you write, the better you get.”
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Although it’s not hard for most of us to imagine the implications of poverty in general, the complex issue of food insecurity has its own set of disturbing consequences that must be addressed. That’s according to Dr. Craig Gundersen, who spoke on October 12 to a group of students at the University of Dallas in a presentation entitled “Addressing Food Insecurity in the United States: A Catholic Economist’s Perspective.” Dr. Gundersen is the Soybean Industry Endowed Professor in Agriculture Strategy in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois and the Executive Director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory.
Aside from the fact that he believes Catholics are called to feed the hungry, Gundersen said that there are several reasons for studying food insecurity in the United States. “There are definite negative health benefits associated with food insecurity,” he said. “These represent serious consequences.”
Gundersen added that food insecurity is not completely characterized by income. “Since 10-15% of non-poor households are food insecure, we need to study why this issue transcends income boundaries,” he said. Gundersen argued that because the central goal of the USDA is to alleviate food insecurity, economists must study in detail the causes and outcomes of the problem in order to make sure the USDA is a good steward of its $100 billion budget.
Researchers like Gundersen use a survey called the Core Food Security Module to measure an individual’s level of food insecurity. It consists of eighteen questions such as “I worried whether I would run out of food before I had money to buy more” and “My child was unable to eat for an entire day because I did not have enough money for food.” Affirmative responses to three or more questions on the module result in a determination that a person is food insecure.
Gundersen indicated that although he trusts the survey’s integrity, there could possibly be times when a parent might be particularly concerned with admitting his or her children were hungry. “I’ve heard about parents breaking down while taking the survey because they were devastated that they couldn’t feed their kids,” he said. “And some might even be afraid that Child Protective Services might be called.”
Even in good economic times, there is food insecurity in the U.S. According to Gundersen, economic downturns like the Great Recession greatly increase these levels. In fact, a sharp increase in food insecurity levels from 2007-2008 predated the official start of the recession. “Food insecurity levels did not begin decreasing from their highs until 2014,” Gundersen said. “And they have still not returned to their pre-recession levels.”
Gundersen said that statistical models have shown that there are several determinants of food insecurity when other factors are accounted for. One determinant that is having a non-working teenager in the house. “Teenagers working outside of school can be a double-edged sword,” Gundersen said. “While their incomes may help the family pay expenses, their schoolwork may suffer in the process.” Other determinants that make food insecurity more likely include living in households where there is a single parent or where a parent is incarcerated, and even the season. “Summer is predictably a time of food insecurity because children are not receiving free or reduced price breaksfasts or lunches,” he said.
Gundersen explained that although SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, is a large investment on the part of our country, the program is achieving its stated goal of alleviating food insecurity. “Not all federal programs are successful,” he said. “But this one is.”
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Although truly civil discourse can be rare in the current political environment, the University of Dallas chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society exists to further such discourse on campus. To accomplish this goal the organization holds weekly discussion meetings, led by the officers, on a variety of topics. “We also sponsor two debates per semester on topics relating to foreign policy, national security and economics,” said Maggie Gasser, president of the UD chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society. The national AHS organization assists campus chapters by recruiting speakers and coordinating their arrangements.
Gasser said that the UD chapter’s members come from majors across the university like politics, economics, business and journalism. “Since UD doesn’t have very many classes on U.S. foreign policy, the programs AHS supports bring interesting perspectives to campus,” said Gasser.
Gasser also said that her experience with the Alexander Hamilton Society has influenced her personally. “I visited Poland during my Rome semester,” she said. “And then I returned the following summer for a language program. I’m interested now in working in foreign policy in that region.”
The Alexander Hamilton Society’s last meeting of the semester will be held on Monday, November 14, at 7 p.m. in Gorman C. The discussion–entitled “Trouble in Pacific Paradise?”–will focus on the China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea and will be led by AHS Speaker Randy Shriver and Dr. Hiro Takeuchi of Southern Methodist University. UD’s Dr. Mark Petersen will moderate.
Although graduating with a degree in chemistry, physics or math often leads to job heavy on technical expertise or specific scientific skills, the variety of a career paths represented at a recent panel consisting of University of Dallas STEM field graduates underscores the fact that these degrees can open doors to many fulfilling careers. And according to the panelists, a liberal arts degree from UD uniquely prepares graduates to become lifelong learners–a characteristic that is crucial to success in the knowledge economy. The panel was presented as part of the Clare Booth Luce Speaker Series.
Dominic Hilario, a self-employed chemical consultant, said that his degree in chemistry from UD gave him the technical skills he needed to start his career. “But my job in the lab wasn’t that exciting,” he said. “So I decided to learn the business side of things.” Although he didn’t have a business background, Hilario believes that his liberal arts degree gave him the tools to be able to learn from others.
MacKenzie Warrens, a junior physics major and a Clare Boothe Luce scholar, said that her experience doing undergraduate research last summer highlighted the contrast between herself and other students. “Liberal arts students are able to talk about so much more than just physics,” she said. “You can have conversations with other majors as well.”
Alessandra Marchi, another CBL scholar, said that her boss specifically noted her problem solving ability. “He called me a hard worker,” she said. “And said that I could grasp concepts without having learned them previously.” According to the alumni on the panel, this ability to grasp complex situations, along with an ongoing desire to learn, is the key to success in any field.
Joe Constantino, owner and president of Einstein’s Eyes, said part of the learning process after graduation includes taking chances on a job you’re not sure if you’ll like. “Don’t resist doing something for just a year,” he said. “You’ll find out something about yourself in the process. As an employer, I don’t look down on that.”
Anne Hoelscher, senior manager of product development at BMC Software agreed. “It used to be that you would probably be in a job for the rest of your life,” she said. “Now, I see resumes where people stay at a job for a year, fifteen-months, two-years. That’s not a big deal any more. But I do want to know what you learned from each of those experiences.”
For Kara Earle, working for Fidelity Investments has allowed her to try different career paths, all while staying with the same company for sixteen years. “Fidelity really invests in its people and in their career development,” she said. “I would recommend looking for a company whose culture values its people learning and growing.”
Along with becoming a lifelong learner, Dr. Carla Tiernan, Assistant Dean, UTA College of Engineering, said that being flexible and open to opportunity is also an important part of future success. “I never wanted to be an academic,” she said. “But you never know where your career is going to end up. Be open to possibilities,” Tiernan added that internships and research experiences can also be help with discernment. “Find out what you don’t like to do is really helpful,” she said.
An audience member remarked that University of Dallas President Thomas Keefe often says that students are preparing for jobs that don’t exist yet. He asked how undergraduates should prepare for those job without knowing what they will entail.
Hoelscher said that adaptation is the key: “UD grads are continually learning. Because of that, when a new industry comes out, you’ll be capable of adapting your skills to meet the challenge.”
Hilario’s answer came complete with a graphs entitled “Knowledge Acquisition of Normal Humans Over Time” and “Knowledge Acquisition of Lifelong Learners Over Time.”
He explained them like this: “Normal humans are born and continually acquire knowledge until they graduate college. Then they get a job and learn just enough to keep the boss happy, completely flattening out until retirement. Lifelong learners, on the other hand, know that just keeping the boss happy isn’t enough. They have to keep learning and growing. A couple of years at this pace and they’re managers. Then maybe CEOs. And finally, if they keep learning and innovating, they might even make it out of the cave.”
Hilario added that the real engine of the kind of growth represented on his graph is innovation. “When you keep learning, you can become a specialist in your field,” he said. “Then you can leverage your knowledge and begin to innovate.
The Henry Luce Foundation has provided a grant for one-year full-tuition scholarships for female students at the University of Dallas majoring in computer science, mathematics, physics or engineering. These scholarships are named Clare Boothe Luce (CBL) Scholarships, and students receiving these scholarships are named as CBL Scholars.
In addition to the scholarships, the University has established a Clare Boothe Luce Speaker Series, Clare Boothe Luce Discussion Panels for Undecided Students, and a support organization for women in the sciences. These initiatives are designed to attract women into physical science, engineering, and mathematical areas and to support them once there.