Now that Joe Biden, a former Penn Presidential Professor of Practice, is president-elect of the United States, there is renewed speculation on how the transition could impact the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and those who work there.
The president-elect has already tapped into the Biden Center to choose his White House administration. Steve Ricchetti, who briefly served as managing director of Penn Biden Center in early 2019, has now been appointed as Biden's counselor, a position that typically allows wide access to the president. Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee for Secretary of State also served as the center's managing director before leaving in 2019 to work on the presidential campaign.
The Penn Biden Center will continue to operate as part of Penn Global, University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. Biden took an unpaid leave of absence from the center in April 2019 after he announced his candidacy for president.
Established in 2018, the Penn Biden Center, based in Washington D.C., was always intended to continue long after Biden left. Now, former student interns and professors are hoping the Biden Center continues to expand and grow into a formal space for those interested in public policy careers.
"The center is a big beautiful building," William Snow, 2019 College graduate and former DP Senior Sports Editor, said. "I think Joe Biden called it the most expensive real estate in D.C. He was really adamant about picking it because it is a short walk from Union Station, where the Amtrak stops. And obviously that's what he's famous for."
Biden, who estimates he has traveled over 2 million miles aboard 16,000 Amtrak trains, is widely known for his support of the rail agency.
Snow interned at the Biden Center from January to May of 2018 as part of the Penn in Washington program, which selects a small cohort of undergraduate students interested in public policy to live, take courses, and intern in D.C. during one of their semesters at Penn.
While he was an intern, Snow said about 15 people worked regularly out of the Biden Center, including a few interns and Biden’s own senior staff in foreign policy. Snow spent the semester doing social media management, communications work, and research for speeches that would go directly to Biden's office. He also worked with senior staff like Blinken and Carlyn Reichel, who was Biden's foreign policy speechwriter.
"It was a really, almost sacred experience working with such a high power group of people, and I felt very lucky to be in such a privileged position," Snow said.
In early 2018, Snow said Biden was "settled into the Center" and doing a lot of international travel and talking to foreign leaders. The former vice president wrapped up his book tour to promote Promise Me, Dad, that June, and announced his candidacy for president a little under a year later in April 2019.
Snow, who now works in the antitrust division of the Justice Department, said the program helped him find his footing in Washington, get to know how government works, and learn about what kinds of related positions are available for recent college graduates.
"I hope that they continue to keep the connection that they have with Biden and senior staff who have since left the Center but obviously are very much still a part of that worldview and mission and general space," Snow said.
2020 College graduate and former DP Opinion columnist Lucy Hu, who interned for the Biden Center from May to July of 2018, said she would like the Center to hire more scholars that have worked in foreign policy.
"The Center is a budding foreign policy think tank," Hu said. "I really would like to see it move more in that direction and hire more staff who is experienced either in the White House or in other foreign policy positions."
Hiring new scholars with experience in the foreign policy field will not only provide a great experience for Biden Center interns, she believes, but will also advance the Center as an established academic institution.
As an intern, Hu said she completed many research-based tasks for Biden Center staff, such as assisting them in writing op-eds. She also did research for Biden's briefings for various trips and speeches. While intern supervisors like Reichel were at the Center every day, Hu said she met Biden himself about three times that summer.
Political science professor and co-director of the Lauder Institute Julia Lynch, who previously served as the faculty director of Penn in Washington, hopes that the Biden Center can become a home for people at Penn who are more broadly interested in public policy. She added that Penn is "really unusual" in that it does not have any kind of public policy school.
Penn's peer universities, such as Princeton University, Brown University, Harvard University, and Columbia University, each have separate schools and programs focused on public policy and international affairs.
"I think it would be wonderful for the Penn Biden Center to really be a focal point at Penn and in D.C. for people who are interested in either public policy internships or doing research on public policy," Lynch said, adding that faculty and graduate students interested in related research areas should be able to use the Center as a meeting point and resource center.
There is a huge amount of interest in public policy among Penn students, Lynch said. Enrolling about 200 students, PSCI 236: Public Policy Process is the largest undergraduate lecture taught in the Political Science department. Subsequent classes that offer content material related to public policy are also really popular, Lynch added.
"There's just a huge demand for this stuff and there's really no kind of physical or psychological center to a lot of this stuff because we don't have a school of public policy," Lynch said.
Programs such as the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative and the Social Science and Policy Forum, which was for faculty members and Ph.D. students in the School of Arts and Sciences, no longer exist. There continues to be a high demand from students who are interested in public policy internships and having networking opportunities with other Penn students and alumni in the field, Lynch said, adding that the Penn in Washington program is limited in its capacity to facilitate that interaction.
As Biden's White House transition begins, it still remains unclear exactly how the new presidency will shape the Center's future.
"I just hope that the Center stays relevant at bare minimum, beyond the time that Biden was there. And I hope that they produce some really good scholarship," Snow said.
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