In last week’s general election rejection of Weber County’s Proposition 3 (the question of studying alternative forms of county government), there were two implicit messages. One was the voters’ sound approval of the compatibility and teamwork of the three current county commissioners. The second and more relevant message tells us that further efforts need to be made in terms of garnering interest and educating the public on issues of the day.

Weber State University’s Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service was ready to devote a great deal of effort to fulfill the mandate of Proposition 3 if it had passed, but there are many other projects to undertake that will benefit the community. So, what’s next for the Walker Institute? We will continue to recruit and prepare student interns to serve in local, state and national institutions, which impact society in significant ways. We will encourage public interest and involvement in major political issues and candidacies, and we will support the dissemination of current information and training to advance economic development in Northern Utah.

The Walker Institute, WSU’s Career Services Center and various college departments have long been advocates of internships to help students gain hands-on experience throughout the community and beyond. This is where they acquire marketable skills and make career connections. Interns also offer valuable services to almost every imaginable industry. Currently, hundreds of students are performing such work. Each year, the Walker Institute recruits and prepares students to serve as intern assistants to members of the Utah Legislature. Interns also support the work of nonprofits, local and state government organizations and national institutions, including the United States Congress.

A second goal of the Walker Institute is to increase public involvement in the democratic process. In Utah’s 2018 midterm election only 52% of the state’s vote-eligible population participated. The national average over the years has been similar — somewhere between 50 and 55%.

On her website, WSU political science professor Leah Murray features this quote from legendary American educator and philosopher Robert Hutchins:

“The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment.”

Even prior to the establishment of Governor Walker’s institute in 2012, campus leaders such as Dr. Murray were working to build interest in public policy in the community through student awareness and action. She helped organize the American Democracy Project, a network of 250 American colleges and universities focused on preparing the next generation of engaged citizens. One of the efforts was to increase WSU student voter turnout through education and numerous voter registration drives.

Northern Utah is university-centered. Ogden, Layton and others are college towns. Thus, WSU’s Center for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL) plays an indispensable part in connecting students and our numerous community partners.

The Walker Institute has hosted and will continue to host forums and debates during various campaign seasons for local, state and national candidates. The 2020 election cycle will bring a host of candidates to our community. The institute will stage public forums at the Ogden and Layton campuses.

A third and equally important focus of the Walker Institute is to help facilitate informational events with an eye to supporting Northern Utah’s critical economic growth.

In 2018, the university hired a new economic development director, Guy Letendre, whose credentials are extensive. His broad leadership experience in world-class business and manufacturing companies, along with his recent immersion in Northern Utah enterprises, enables him to connect WSU’s reservoir of expertise with the development needs of the community.

Under his leadership, the Walker Institute has sponsored forums on the critical housing shortage and tax reform. Future workshops will be held on the phenomenon of drones and intergenerational poverty. Other pertinent subjects and relevant political issues will be addressed during the months to come.

With the outcome of Proposition 3 and unimpressive voter turnout as reminders, it is easy to recognize that Weber State University and the Walker Institute have a great opportunity, as we partner with other institutions, to enhance preparation of our students for their futures while enhancing Northern Utah’s future as well.

Robert A. Hunter is director of The Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University. He may be contacted at rhunter@weber.edu.

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