Ralph Begleiter is a professor of political science and communication at the University of Delaware and is also the director of the university’s Center for Political Communication. He has a 30-year career in broadcast journalism and was CNN’s world affairs correspondent for two decades, during which time he traveled to nearly 100 countries and all 7 continents.
RB: The thing that that career did for me was it inspired me to realize that I think people in the United States, generally, but especially college-age students, need to realize that there’s a big world out there. I realize how cliché it sounds to say this, but I think a lot of people living in the United States don’t realize the importance of international politics and diplomacy and economics and business. We tend to be able to go ahead and do our lives without worrying about that too much, often making the assumption that it’s OK, somebody else is taking care of that, it’s not my job, I’ll worry about what I need to worry about. I think that’s a bad approach, especially for college-age students, and I had long thought about teaching as a second career, but hadn’t really done anything further about it.
Toward the end of my time at CNN, I taught a course at Georgetown that was a made-up course. That course has evolved over the last 12 years into what is now the global media and international politics course that I teach. The thing is, while I taught that while I was still at CNN, I realized it’s fun to do. Students of college age are very open to hearing about and learning about a wide variety of things, they just have to be exposed to them. Even people who are in [majors not related to international relations], I’ve found, find it interesting to know what’s going on in other countries and how the media deals with them. So that really inspired me to say, “OK, this is something I think I could do, and probably do reasonably well.”
TSD: What do you think your most important project has been during your time at UD?
RB: I guess I’d have to say Global Agenda has been the one with the widest reach and the longest lasting. Global Agenda is now over a decade old, and when you think about the numbers of students who have taken the class, the numbers of other non-students who have attended the lectures, and the diversity of speakers that we’ve had over the course of that decade plus, I think it’s been a pretty good experience. I think it’s been important for Delaware to have access to those kinds of speakers, to have the kind of experience where students don’t just get to sit in an auditorium and listen to the speaker, but they also have a chance to meet them up close and personal. In the last few years, I’ve been doing the interaction with Dubai and students in the Middle East. That’s another thing I feel is important for UD students, being exposed to a different culture that way, in all of its detail, can really be a valuable experience for them, so I guess I’d have to say that’s the most important.
TSD: What is the importance of an institute like the Center for Political Communication for UD?
RB: There aren’t many universities in the United States who can claim to have a vice president in office or have even had one in the past, much less the governor of a major state as an alum, the campaign managers of various campaigns and so on. So I really think it’s kind of a cool thing to be able to highlight that and to try to take it to the next level, both for students today and students tomorrow, and I think that’s something I’m very happy to be involved in.
A second form of the CPC is that politics is increasingly intertwined with technology, and I think this is where my international interests really intersect with the CPC. We’ve just seen in Egypt and Tunisia and Yemen and now in Saudi Arabia and Syria, we have seen how tech has influenced the way politics is conducted in those countries, not only among young people but also among very experienced politicians and diplomats and so on, and I think we are at an opportunity where not very many people have studied that yet. We keep transcripts of presidential speeches and we can do research about voting in the United States—all those things have been done, but something that has not been done yet is figuring out how technology intersects with the conduct of politics. It’s unfolding all around us right now. It’s very exciting, I think, and the CPC is funding and supporting research [to that end].
TSD: Could you comment on the recent political events in the Middle East? Do you think that movement was bound to happen no matter what, or do you think it was influenced strongly by the presence of technology and social media?
RB: Well I’m very proud to say a year ago, the Center for Political Communication had an event on campus, with four speakers on the stage. One was David Plouffe [President Obama’s 2008 campaign manager], one was Steve Schmidt [Sen. John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager]. We had a journalist from Malaysia here by Skype, and we had a journalist who covers Egypt on the stage, and the whole topic was about the role of technology in international politics. Afterwards, even Schmidt and Plouffe, who with their roles are mostly focused on domestic politics, said to me afterwards they didn’t realize the extent to which these technologies they’re using in the United States are also affecting electorates all around the world. We called attention to this phenomenon that was growing at the time. If you asked me if would have predicted what happened in Egypt in January to occur, no, I would not have predicted it to happen in Egypt and we did not predict it during that event. But by the time it happened in January, students who had attended that event on the campus and had heard about it started saying to me, “This is just like what we talked about last spring.” Sure enough, it was and it was unfolding in that way, so that’s a very—I think—fun illustration of why its important to start paying attention to these things in advance. Even if you can’t necessarily predict who’s going to win or when something momentous is going to occur, if you know about it in advance and then it does unfold, however surprisingly, I think you’re rewarded by, I was paying attention to this, this is not hitting me as a surprise.
TSD: Your popular class and speaker series, Global Agenda, has helped educate both university students and the public on topics ranging from climate change to the Middle East for more than a decade. Where did the idea for the Global Agenda class come from?
RB: When I arrived at UD in 1999, there was a foreign policy lecture series on campus. It was held only in the winter session in January. There were five consecutive lecture series in January, five weeks in a row, and they were held at Clayton Hall in a relatively small room. I attended those and discovered that many of them were attended by 15 or 20 people, and it was hard to get a really good speaker. I was asked by the person who had been doing it, “Would you like to take it over?” and one of the things I remember saying in the very first meeting about it was, “Would it be OK to make some changes, or is this pretty well locked in and this is the way it has to be?” And they said, “If you’re going to do it, you can think about changes you might want to make.”
The first thing I thought about doing was taking it out of winter session. Nothing against winter session, it’s a great opportunity for a lot of students, but let’s face it, some students aren’t even on campus during Winter Session. The second thing I thought was, five lectures in a row, five weeks in a row, no course credit? So the second change I made was, can we do this as a class and can we spread it out over the course of the spring semester? And finally, the idea of making it a class, to me was sort of a no-brainer. Let’s face it, students respond to incentives. If you offer students an incentive—you’re going to meet these people, you’re going to get course credit, you’re going to get a grade, all of those various incentives that students respond to, chances are, you’ll get more students engaged with it. I added the idea that the speaker wouldn’t just come for a lecture but would also come into the classroom—I think that’s a better experience for students—and the idea of having a dinner with the students, I think has also proven to be a valuable thing. Getting a free dinner is a nice thing, of course, but I think after a few of them, the students realize that it isn’t just about the dinner, it’s actually about the conversation you can have with these fairly interesting people.
I enjoy the Middle East, I find it a fascinating topic, and I think it’s one that American students don’t pay enough attention to. I think they tend to lump the Middle East—oh, it’s such a mess over there and I can’t figure it out. Whatever it is, it’s too complicated for me to figure out, and one of my motivations has been to try to break it down into bite-size pieces, where students can actually walk away at the end of a semester and engage in a substantive conversation on what’s going on in the Middle East.