USC College undergraduates Colin Koproske and Mathew Morgan have a modest goal: They want to change the tenor of American political dialogue.
They want to replace polemics and partisanship with rational debate based on solid research. And they’re enlisting some of the nation’s best minds — faculty and doctoral students at USC and across the nation.
The two students founded the BrainTrust Project, a nonprofit organization centered on a Web site, BrainTrustProject.org, that officially launched on Feb. 9. The site showcases university experts’ perspectives on the important policy issues of the day. The articles aim to inform voters and elected officials alike.
“Professors participate by writing newspaper-style op-eds on their areas of expertise,” said Koproske, a senior majoring in political science and music performance. “The idea is a simple hub for scholarly opinion that will help to not only educate the voters but change the dynamic between government officials and academics.
“Basically, we’re promoting public intellectualism.”
Koproske and Morgan chafe at the way public debate can be dominated by emotionally charged issues — “gay marriage and flag burning” in their shorthand — and want to shift the focus to reasonable examination of vital but less volatile issues such as the search for alternative fuel.
First things first, though. The BrainTrust Project launched featuring 10 articles, many from nationally known scholars, with more in the pipeline. Koproske and Morgan want a broad database of authors, so they are seeking contributions from as many faculty and doctoral students as possible.
“A lot of the people we’ve approached were eager for a forum such as this one,” said Morgan, a senior international relations major. “They all got involved in academe because they’re passionate about their field, and this is an opportunity to write something relevant that they know the public desperately needs.”
Because the world of policy is multifaceted, the content on the Web site spans the most relevant disciplines — international relations and political science, naturally — but also encompasses economics, education, environmental studies, health care and the sciences.
Koproske and Morgan are more concerned with contributors’ academic credentials than their party affiliation. “We have no ideology of our own to espouse,” Morgan said. “We encourage people of all political backgrounds.”
In addition to presenting articles by academics, the site’s founders hope to encourage collaboration and to promote the role of university faculty as a public resource.
Through participation in the BrainTrust Project’s “Wikidemia,” university experts can team up online to develop nuanced policy recommendations. A directory of contributors can serve as a virtual Rolodex for journalists, or citizens, seeking to learn more.
The idea for the project began when Koproske and Morgan interned at a San Diego-area political organization in the summer of 2005. As with many ambitious endeavors, it began with discontent.
“We were working in politics, but were sort of becoming disillusioned with it,” Koproske said. “The rhetoric turned us off. We’re into academics, but we’re dealing with the political world. We noticed what a gap there was between those two worlds.”
In addition to their distaste for politicians’ exploitation of emotionally charged issues, the student interns worried that people with policy expertise, such as the academics who taught their classes, didn’t have a real voice in the political world.
“The BrainTrust Project was a way that we envisioned solving all the problems that we saw,” Koproske said.
They’ve recruited an estimable advisory board that includes Alison Dundes Renteln of the College’s political science department; bioanthropologist Craig Stanford, chair and professor of anthropology; former USC professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who now teaches law and political science at Duke University, as well as Duke anthropologist Orin Starn and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.
The BrainTrust founders have impressive résumés of their own. Both are USC Trustee Scholars and members of the Mortar Board honor society. Koproske is a recipient of a Marshall Scholarship, one of the most prestigious awards granted to American undergraduates. Thanks to Marshall funding, he will study at the University of Oxford next year, where he will continue his involvement with the project.
Morgan, originally from Camarillo, Calif., will also continue working on the project after graduation. His career interests lie both in public policy and the nonprofit sector. An American Red Cross volunteer for eight years, he is in his second year as a member of the Red Cross’ National Youth Council and expects to remain involved with the organization for the rest of his life.
A St. Louis native, Koproske wants to pursue a career as a political science professor, while maintaining his sideline as a professional drummer. His dedication to public intellectualism will stay with him, as well. “It’s a mission I’ll be involved with my whole life, trying to get academics more active in the public sphere.”
Koproske and Morgan hope their idea finds its place in scholarly culture. “Ideally, in a couple years everybody going into Ph.D. programs will know about the site, sort of like an academic FaceBook,” said Koproske, referring to the popular college social-networking site.
For all their ambition, the duo behind the BrainTrust Project remain realistic about the task at hand. They know that any attempt to recast political discourse must, first and foremost, engage citizens.
“We’re not naively idealistic,” Morgan said. “Elected officials are primarily responsible to their constituency. We need to address the constituents and build a dialogue at that level.
“As long as we allow politicians to avoid the difficult and complex issues that we’re facing as a country, they will. It’s as simple as that.”