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Dennis FitzSimons '67 Encourages Students to Defend Democracy at 3rd Annual Civics Symposium

Dennis FitzSimons '67 Encourages Students to Defend Democracy at 3rd Annual Civics Symposium

With only a few months left until the 2024 general election, the Electoral College, immigration and foreign policy themed FitzSimons Civics Symposium was held in Leonard Theatre at Fordham Prep.

Now in its third year, the FitzSimons Civics Symposium is part of the FitzSimons Civics Education Initiative. The initiative strives to cultivate an understanding and appreciation for the US system of government, a recognition of the importance of free speech and respect for multiple points of view, and to learn the skills necessary to successfully navigate today’s digital news and information ecosystem. 

This year’s event on March 26th brought back David Hiller (McCormack Foundation) as moderator. Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post and Mene Ukueberuwa of the Wall Street Journal sat on the panel. 

The event began with a prayer from Jorge '24 and a brief welcome from Aakaash ‘24, who presented donor Dennis FitzSimons ‘67 with gifted merch from the Prep.

David Hiller, Catherine Rampell, and Mene Ukueberuwa at the 3rd Annual FitzSimons Civics Symposium. 

Hiller then gave the panelists a chance to introduce themselves and talk a bit about how they got involved in politics and journalism. Rampell noted that she knew she wanted to be a journalist at a young age, starting a newspaper at her school during the second grade. After interning at several news organizations, including the Washington Post, she worked at the New York Times for six years before returning to the Post as an op-ed columnist.

Ukueberuwa had a similar story, also starting a newspaper at his school two years later in his schooling than Rampell. His passion for journalism and interest in politics growing up led him to write for his student newspaper in college. He thought he would work in government but loved debating ideas in writing so he ended up continuing his studies in journalism, writing for arts, culture, and public policy publications along the way. 

Before starting the discussion of the topics at hand, Hiller asked the audience of juniors and seniors to raise their hands if they will be eligible to vote in the upcoming election.

“Well this informs a lot of urgency in the subjects we're going to be covering today,” Hiller said after noticing a number of hands raised in the audience. 

Hiller then moved into the first topic of discussion: the Electoral College. 

Ukueberuwa explained that the Electoral College was created to provide a layer of judgment from the electors between the division of the voters and the ultimate outcome as well as acknowledge the sovereignty of the states as political units that elect the president.

“If we got rid of the Electoral College, what you basically would see is the Democratic candidate going to San Francisco, New York, and other large left-leaning cities and trying to generate as much turnout as possible. You would see the Republican candidate canvasing the middle of the country and the South, trying to generate enthusiasm and excitement from their side, but neither of them would really be forced to compete for the middle and create constructive policies that serve the interests of all Americans,” he stated.

Rampell expressed her concern over the popular vote being completely different from the Electoral College in past elections, resulting in a presidential win that does not reflect the votes of the people.  

“There are enough situations, including in recent memory, where the popular vote has conflicted with the outcome of the Electoral College and it's hard for me to understand what the upside of that scenario is. I just think it serves to undermine confidence in our electoral system and the idea that the president in office has a popular mandate,” she said.

After some questions from the Symposium Committee about whether the Electoral College truly represents the diversity of the American people and how post-election news coverage influences public trust in our democracy, there was a short break before moving onto the topic of foreign policy.

Hiller asked juniors and seniors whether they felt the US should maintain/ increase their involvement in foreign policy or decrease/stay out of that realm. The students were split about the issue.

After a brief discussion of moments in history that caused increased foreign intervention from the US such as the Cold War and the September 11th Attacks, a conversation on recent events surrounding China-based social media app TikTok started up. This caused the juniors and seniors to perk up and begin murmuring about the popular app with their peers.

Hiller mentioned that during the pre-event lunch, panelists and students discussed TikTok as a news source. He asked students in the crowd if they use TikTok, to which the majority of them raised their hands. Rampell and Ukueberuwa went on to talk about the looming ban on TikTok in the US.

“It largely has to do with National Security issues, the idea that there is at least partial Chinese ownership and that we don't necessarily know how the information that the company gathers on American users is being used,” Rampell stated. She also mentioned that there might be a concern over having the Chinese government in possession of such a popular app where disruptive messaging and disinformation can be disseminated by adversaries of the US.

Ukueberuwa agreed, citing the example of TikTok videos by environmentalist Bill McKibben, which spurred a series of videos by other environmentalists on the platform just weeks before President Joe Biden signed an order regarding reducing global greenhouse emissions. 

“Can any American specifically trace that to a Chinese influence campaign and say that they were changing the algorithm to boost this because they knew that it would hurt America's oil and gas industry? I don't think we have any direct evidence that they've been doing that in that case or any other one but it's something that a lot of members of Congress wonder,” he stated.

The panelists continued discussing America’s involvement in foreign affairs when it comes to trading with Canada and wars in places like Ukraine. 

A student from the Symposium Committee asks the panelists a question.

The conversations moved onto immigration. Hiller asked the panelists to begin the discussion on the topic by stating their views.

“There's lots of evidence that that continued infusion of new blood and new talent is what helps keep the United States dynamic and thriving. If you look at why the United States economy has surpassed expectations over and over again in the past few years with forecasts of a recession that so far we have defied—a large part of that has to do with the fact that immigration is up,” Rampell noted.

Ukueberuwa mentioned that while many immigrants from South and Central America are seeking asylum due to persecution in their homelands, many are claiming asylum when they know they don’t qualify for it. He also stated that a compromise to properly process asylum seekers “came really close to passage but was tanked for cynical political reasons of some Republicans who wanted to continue to have immigration as a political issue going into the 2024 election.”

The concluded with students from the Symposium Committee thanking Hiller, Rampell, and Ukueberuwa before presenting them with gifts from the Prep. FitzSimons took the stage for a brief moment for the official end of the event.

The Symposium Committee poses with moderators Eleanor Friedman P’26 and Gillian Bennis, event panelists, David Hiller, Dennis FitzSimons ‘67, President Anthony Day, Principal Dr. Joe Petriello ‘98, and Brian Carney. 

“I wasn't going to say anything today but I couldn't help myself,” he began. “In seeing half of the hands in this auditorium go up when it was asked who will be voting or who will be eligible to vote—I'd just like to urge everybody. I've got a lot of a lot of faith in our system. There's a lot of doubt about it right now. You guys are the future and it's up to you to defend our system. Thank you,” FitzSimons said to the students.