Hillary Clinton’s ‘secret’ paper: an undergrad thesis enters the race for ’08

Correction appended.

If you plan to run for president, be careful what you research.

Some reporters and political operatives digging for blemishes in presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton’s past are suggesting that the junior Democratic senator from New York’s 1969 undergraduate thesis about leftist community organizer Saul Alinsky could shed light on her current political outlook.

The controversy surrounding Clinton’s college paper reminds undergrads that, no matter how much time has passed since graduation, their college writings are never too far behind.

“Oftentimes people have gone back to candidates’ colleges and found information that is damaging,” said Darrell West, professor of political science and director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy. “I think they’re going to dig further this year.”

Whether Clinton’s Wellesley College thesis reveals anything about her current political mindset is debatable. “It’s always interesting to hear how people came to the political process because sometimes that does shape how people act later in life,” West said. “Everybody wants to know how, if in any way, (Clinton) was shaped by Alinsky’s thinking.”

A controversial topicWidely considered the father of community organizing, Alinsky brought together residents in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s. Yet the activist’s anti-establishment mantra made him a controversial figure.

“He argued that powerless people could learn to trust one another and recognize their potential for making change,” said Associate Professor of Sociology Hilary Silver. “I don’t think that anybody who advocates for poor people has been considered a mainstream guy in this country.”

Though some biographers labeled Alinsky a communist, he disputed those claims before his death in 1972.

According to a March 3 article on MSNBC.com, Clinton’s thesis praised aspects of Alinsky’s vision and leadership style but criticized his overarching vision. In her 2003 autobiography “Living History,” Clinton wrote, “I agreed with some of Alinsky’s ideas. … But we had a fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn’t.”

In 1993, the Clinton White House asked Wellesley to make the thesis unavailable to the public, spurring speculation among some conservatives that Sen. Clinton’s writings revealed radical or communist sympathies. Accessible to Wellesley visitors since 2001, the paper could become fodder for the senator’s presidential opponents.

A Republican consultant told MSNBC.com that Clinton’s political foes could highlight that while Clinton was writing about Alinksy, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was a prisioner of war in Vietnam.

Could it happen to you?Many of Brown’s humanities and social science departments provide open access to undergraduate honors theses, mostly for the benefit of future thesis-writers.

Honors theses from roughly a dozen departments – including history, psychology and English – are archived in the John Hay Library and are open to the public. University Archivist Gerald Gaidmore said he and his staff hope to put abstracts of all the Hay’s theses online by the end of this semester, meaning a former student’s thesis topic could pop up if someone does a Google search for that person.

Kathleen Pappas, coordinating secretary for the Department of Religious Studies, said in the 14 years she’s worked there she hasn’t heard of anyone requesting to read a specific graduate’s thesis with the hope of gaining biographical insight into the writer.

Associate Professor of Public Policy Ross Cheit, who advises public policy concentrators writing theses, said papers in disciplines involving theoretical analysis, such as philosophy and political science, are more likely to generate controversy than the case study analyses public policy concentrators write.

“I can’t think of a thesis we’ve had that poses the Hillary Clinton issue,” he said. “Our program is sort of moderate in its orientation. How well is the food stamp program implemented in Rhode Island? That’s not going to be a radical thesis.”

U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal ‘91.5, R-La., a public policy concentrator at Brown and currently a candidate for governor of Louisiana, wrote his thesis about state health care expenditures.

The Department of Political Science does not have a “systematic” approach to storing honors theses, said thesis adviser Professor of Political Science Linda Cook. Some political science concentrators leave theses with professors, she said, but that is not required.

Similarly, the Department of Philosophy does not store old theses because “there’s just never been any call from anyone to consider whether we should have a (thesis storage) policy,” wrote David Estlund, professor of philosophy and chair of the department, in an e-mail to The Herald. Gaidmore said a few philosophy theses are on hand at the Hay.

West said this election season marks the first time he’s heard of a college thesis becoming a campaign issue, but in politics, collegiate behavior is often fair game.

“I always tell my students they should be careful what they do on the weekends,” he said. “You never know 30 years from now who will be interested in it.”

A photo accompanying an article in Wednesday’s Herald (“Hillary Clinton’s ‘secret’ paper: an undergrad thesis enters the race for ’08,” March 14) was incorrectly attributed to Jacob Melrose ’09. The photographer was Jean Yves Chainon ’06.