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Obama discusses innovation, economy

On June 2, President Obama addressed the campus community. (credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Contributing Editor) On June 2, President Obama addressed the campus community. (credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Contributing Editor)

President Barack Obama came to Carnegie Mellon on June 2 as the most recent in a series of notable political visitors, including Michelle Obama, John McCain, and Chelsea Clinton. Announced only four days in advance, the purpose of the president’s visit was to give a speech that centered on the economy, energy, education, and innovation.

In his speech, Obama was quick to declare that the steps his administration has taken have “succeeded in breaking the freefall of the economy,” pointing to increasing jobs over the last five months, recovered costs from supporting the automotive and financial industries, and those companies once again producing profit. However, with a recovering yet “fragile” economy, Obama spent the majority of his speech discussing how we can invest in the future of the country.

He made several references to improving America’s higher education system by making it more accessible to all students. “To achieve my goal of ensuring America once more has the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, we passed a law that will make college more affordable by ending the unnecessary taxpayer subsidies that go to financial institutions for student loans,” he said. “It’s a bill that will also revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families.”

While the government works to create more college graduates and strengthen community colleges, Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon emphasized that Carnegie Mellon would not fit either of these two categories. “We are not going to grow in size. We won’t be graduating more students.... However, there’s a way that we are already helping,” Cohon said, referring to Obama’s mention of “educational software that’s as effective and engaging as a personal tutor.”

“We have already created what everybody acknowledges to be the best class of that force,” Cohon said. “We have already created OLI [Open Learning Initiative], which comes out of path-breaking research from our faculty, and this has received a lot of attention from the Obama administration, and they have been very supportive and will support us more to develop and migrate courses to community colleges.”

In terms of energy, Obama referenced the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a reason to push for the future of clean energy. “We also have to acknowledge that an America run solely on fossil fuels should not be the vision we have for our children and our grandchildren,” he said.

Lee Branstetter, an associate professor of economics and public policy, emphasized what Obama’s push for clean energy could mean for the U.S. economy. “Trying to make the political case for transition to [a] cleaner economy, it makes sense to emphasize job creation. The installation of windmills, solar power facilities, development of nuclear power plants, development of natural gas plants — all of this installation and construction is fairly labor-constructive. If you have a policy in place that leads to rapid introduction of these technologies, then yes, you will create these jobs.”

However, while Branstetter spoke in praise of a price on carbon emissions — “As an economist, I was pleased to see the emphasis the president placed on that policy,” he said — he believes there is still work to be done in bringing this message to the populace. “As the public is taking stock of the oil spill, this is a moment where [the] average American may be prompted to reconsider reliance on fossil fuel as a national energy strategy,” he said. “I also think it’s true that most voters do not understand what it means to put a price on carbon; what they hear is you are going to put a price on my import that makes it more expensive. There hasn’t been an effort to reach out to voters and educate them on the issue using language they can understand.”
In his focus on innovation as the route to change in economy, education, and energy, Obama aligned his message with the spirit of Pittsburgh. “And when that [steel] industry shrank and so many jobs were lost, who could have guessed that Pittsburgh would fare better than many other Rust Belt cities and re-emerge as a center for technology and green jobs, health care, and education?” he said. As with the G-20 summit held here in September 2009, Pittsburgh continues to serve as an example of success through the recent recession. Cohon is aware of the attention this brings to the university. “As the president said, Pittsburgh is a leading example of an industrial city that has transformed itself economically, and I think the administration recognizes that Carnegie Mellon is a major actor in that ongoing transformation,” Cohon said.

And while most reacted positively to the president’s appearance on campus, others were disappointed in the small size of the event and it being “invitation only.” Negative sentiment was also expressed by individuals outside of the campus community. Alex Lotorto, an East Liberty resident and Industrial Workers of the World member, held a large sign reading “FREE GAZA” outside the event. Lotorto hoped to express his discontent at the president’s visit and the policies that he has implemented.

The government’s response to Lotorto’s expression was not what he had hoped. “The state police and Secret Service showed up at my house to question my mom. I was upset and angry because it stressed her out and it is unfair that they would do something like that, and I’m looking into violation of my civil rights,” Lotorto said.

Regardless of the potential unfairness of Lotorto’s situation, the community was forced to deal with serious security surrounding the event, as well as an entire day of closed campus services in the University Center. These measures were deemed necessary, though, as the administration chose to host President Obama, positioning Carnegie Mellon as a center of innovation as it plans for the future of the country and the remainder of Obama’s term and beyond.