Opinion: KPU turns 50: A look back at how the student-run speakers bureau has shaped AU
Since its founding in 1968, the Kennedy Political Union has become a key part of the AU community
In 1968, similar to today, the United States was a divided country going through turbulent, political times. Naturally, these sentiments extended to the American University community, where anti-Vietnam War protests and civil rights sit-ins rightfully occurred on a regular basis.
Also similar to today, an emphasis on civil discourse shaped the larger dialogue around the issues AU and the country were facing. Was AU a place where open debate could occur? And if so, how? Two students had a very unique idea to tackle this problem.
Looking to create a mark on his campaign for Student Association President (the precursor to AU Student Government), AU student Luiz Simmons ran on a platform vowing to create a forum for students to engage in dialogue with elected officials across the country. He called his idea the Kennedy Political Union, or KPU for short, named in honor of the Kennedy family’s service to the United States and as an homage to President John F. Kennedy’s speech on peace at AU five years prior.
After winning the election, Simmons finally had the chance to make his dream a reality. Simmons designated sophomore Tom Block to be the first KPU Director, and together they built the foundation for a legacy that has shined for 50 years since.
They hosted their first speaker, Theodore C. Sorenson, on September 16, 1968. Sorenson was President Kennedy’s speechwriter and had written his 1963 commencement speech at AU. Though this was the first of 25 speaking events that year, it easily packed the amphitheater.
Since then, KPU has expanded beyond the original vision, bringing speakers from a vast array of backgrounds and fields and filling up Bender Arena on a regular basis. With a history of speakers like Bill Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, John Legend, Paul Ryan, Colin Powell, Gabrielle Union, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Muhammad Ali, Newt Gingrich, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Nye, Dick Cheney, Laura Bush, Anderson Cooper, the Dalai Lama, Joe Biden, Jake Tapper, Antonin Scalia, Bernie Sanders, Laverne Cox, Al Gore, Ralph Nader, Elizabeth Warren and Madeleine Albright, there is no limit to what KPU can accomplish or who the next major figure to speak at AU will be.
Today, KPU is a staple of the American University community, hosting annual events like the All American Weekend speaker and WONK of the Year award. Students have to come to anticipate these highlight events every year.
Even though KPU has grown, its success can be attributed to the fact that it remains rooted in the original vision: an entirely student-funded, student-run and non-partisan organization dedicated to stimulating open dialogue on American University’s campus. Even after a speaking event has concluded, the conversations regarding the event, speaker and their persona continues to consume residence hall lounges, classrooms, and social media pages.
This goes back to the reason so many students chose to attend American University: to engage in dialogue that is both outside of their comfort zones and that will enrich their academic experience. For the student that is inspired by a speech, or gets to ask a question, or has the opportunity to meet the speaker, that experience is all worth the work KPU does.
On the 50th anniversary of the first KPU event, our hope is that KPU will continue to be such a thriving success for the next 50 years to come and beyond. And with some of the speakers that our amazing team of 20 students has lined up for the 2018-2019 school year, it seems like we’ll do just that.
Yazan Hanouneh is a junior in the School of Public Affairs. He serves as the 2018-2019 Director of the Kennedy Political Union.