Shutdown becomes a teachable moment

Posted: October 09, 2013

The federal shutdown is providing more than frustration, financial hardship, and political theater.

It's furnishing a real-life lesson for Temple University public-relations students. They are studying the postures of government leaders determined to have their way and judging the impacts of those stands on the American public.

Take a seat, class. It's Shutdown 101. What happens when the government of the most powerful and prosperous nation on Earth closes down?

Nothing good.

But at Temple, students are attempting to parse the game plans of the major players and apply the lessons of the shutdown to their own expected futures in strategic communications.

"Are people going to remember this?" student Richard Traylor, 22, of Lancaster, asked Monday. Will voters carry the memory of the shutdown into the voting booth in 2016?

"It depends how long it goes," answered Adetokunbo Soyemi, 21, of New York City. If the shutdown drags on, if it becomes more painful and personal, they'll remember.

Traylor and Soyemi were among the 11 students in associate professor Gregg Feistman's upper-level "Public Relations Management and Problems" class. The students, most of them seniors, were learning about the role of persuasion and public opinion in a crisis.

"Welcome to Day Seven of the government shutdown," Feistman said, settling against a table in Room 406 of the Tuttleman Learning Center.

No welcome was really needed. The students, like the rest of the country, couldn't avoid the shutdown even if they wanted. It's all over the news. And all over people's lives.

For colleges, the impacts are myriad: Federal research grants have stopped flowing. Key government websites are down. Students seeking federal loans can forget about applying for now. The same goes for those who need a passport to spend a semester abroad.

Some schools, though, are trying to make the shutdown work for students, at least in the classroom.

At Villanova University, instructor David Fiorenza, an economist in the School of Business, is using the shutdown to teach urban economics. Students are exploring whether certain federal services might be privatized to put them beyond the reach of future shutdowns. They're also examining whether local, county, and state agencies could restructure their budgets to become less reliant on federal funding.

The shutdown entered its second week Monday, with no end in sight, and an Oct. 17 deadline to raise the debt ceiling coming ever more into focus.

Democrats refuse to accede to Republican demands to tie the reopening of government to a delay or the defunding of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature domestic achievement.

At Temple, students focused on the shutdown's public-relations importance for key players - Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, the Democrats, the GOP - and how each shifts and reacts to public opinion.

"It's all about politics," Feistman said before class began. "And the practical, what every politician wants more than anything else: To be reelected."

During class, students roamed across assigned readings from opinion columnists and articles in Monday's newspapers. Their key question was the same one being asked everywhere: When will the shutdown end? And what will it take to do that?

"Some of what will push people to eventually take action will be the international community," suggested Max Dease, 21, a public-relations major from Wheaton, Ill.

Students offered factors they thought could force a solution: Fear of losing elections in 2016. More pressure from advocacy groups. Demands from businesses that are being hurt, whether that's General Electric, with millions of dollars in government contracts, or a gas station that sells snacks and cigarettes near a government office.

Nothing was settled in class. But that was all right. Discussing the shutdown and motivations for it gave students a deeper insight.

"It puts it in the real world," said Jennifer Burroughs, 21, of Baltimore. "A real case."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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