I Thought Taking A Class Taught By Hillary Clinton Would Be Empowering. I Was Wrong.
From my aisle seat, I was well positioned to access the lecture microphone. Just beyond it stood Hillary Clinton. It’s too bad I was only able to ask her one question the entire semester I spent in her course.
Last fall I learned that Clinton would be teaching a class at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. I did not hesitate to apply — and neither did 1,200 other students.
My application essays were impassioned. I was certain Clinton’s five decades of public service would enrich my own leadership ambitions. I had imagined that spending two hours each week with a former senator, secretary of state, first lady and presidential nominee would embolden me in new ways. Unfortunately, my idealistic hopes got the best of me.
Clinton’s course, titled “Inside the Situation Room” and co-taught with SIPA’s Dean Keren Yarhi-Milo, promised students an opportunity to understand the key factors that underpin a nation’s most crucial decisions.
“But what is her class really like?” my peers often asked me.
Well, the thing is, it wasn’t really a class — it was a production.
On my first day, I expected to enter a classroom with 30 other students, which would be typical of classes in my program. Instead, I approached a swarm of several hundred. Next to them was a sea of cameras belonging to journalists from various major outlets. Just to their right, I spotted Secret Service personnel whispering into their radios. It was only 11:30 a.m. — our lecture didn’t begin until 2:10 p.m.
Perhaps the enormous class size was to be expected. It was, arguably, an equitable decision made to meet the high demand from students across a diversity of programs, all of whom hoped to learn from the same distinguished political figure. Unfortunately, our shared enthusiasm was leveraged to what felt like the detriment of our own learning experience.
Every Wednesday for 12 consecutive weeks, I sacrificed my lunch break to queue alongside 350 equally eager students for the chance at scoring a front-row seat. The third week of class, I overheard one classmate say he felt as if he was “waiting for a celebrity concert ticket.” He mused: “I wonder if I can sleep here tonight so I can get up front and ask my question tomorrow.”
On our first day of class, after making it past the Secret Service agents, we settled in for a much-anticipated two hours with the onetime presidential nominee. But the class abruptly ended half an hour early — and continued to do so every week. Only a handful of students were given time to ask their prepared questions.
Why did we lose a quarter of our scheduled class time? The crew filming each session needed time to disassemble their equipment. I’m not surprised; it’s an elaborate setup. Rumor has it that next year the same class will be offered, but instead of in-person lectures with Clinton each week, students will be offered the videos of our class via a platform called Columbia+, which sounds to me more like a streaming service than a scholarly site.
Together in class and on tape, we acted much like an audience at a late-night talk show, distracted by the cameras and yet immersed in the vanity of the production. We followed an unspoken script where we were both active and passive at once — expected to laugh at certain anecdotes, but not encouraged to raise our hands.
It’s no secret that celebrity professors are thought to be great for universities. A recognizable name and an impressive pedigree like Clinton’s attract valuable attention, bringing in students, donors, funding and opportunities for new institutions, like Clinton’s recently launched Institute of Global Politics at SIPA.
But these benefits come with a cost.
Week after week, hour-long lines wrapped around the lobby of the lecture hall, as students employed aggressive strategies to secure near-microphone seats for what became known as “the Hunger Games Q&A.” Subjecting ourselves to this wait was unavoidable if we had any hope of asking even one question during the semester. (Rachel Szala, associate dean for communications and external relations at SIPA, told HuffPost in an email: “Secretary Clinton and Dean Yarhi-Milo held open Q&A for at least 20 minutes at the end of each class. Student questions were not pre-screened and students were allowed to ask more than one question over the course of the semester, even if they had previously asked a question … During the first class after Oct. 7, they offered twice as long as normal (40 minutes) for questions on the conflict or any other topic students wanted to discuss. And in the last class, Q&A was over an hour.” Despite what Szala says, I will note we were told at almost every lecture that “if you have already asked a question, you are not allowed to ask another one.”)
Twice, Clinton didn’t appear in class. “The secretary couldn’t make it this week,” Yarhi-Milo told us, as if we should expect to pay for a Broadway show only to watch the understudy.
When Clinton was present on stage, students were eager to delve into current events and voice their opinions. However, when sensitive topics arose, the discourse was often neutralized and students were referred to panels and events outside the lecture hall for answers.
Bitterness inside the classroom grew as the war in the Middle East evolved. Clinton faced walkouts, sit-ins and, on several occasions, fierce vocal backlash in response to her often bland answers to conflict-related questions.
When several dozen students planned a mid-lecture walkout in protest of Columbia’s response to doxxing incidents on campus, Yarhi-Milo responded by expressing her shared frustrations. One student yelled back: “Then do better!”
There are no doubt considerable challenges that come with attempting to educate hundreds of students about global conflicts unfolding in real time — especially in a classroom where every word is being recorded. The efforts to ease tensions made by the university and those overseeing the class should be commended. But relying on future roundtables to address students’ grievances, while reducing class time so the course can be digitally documented, comes as a disappointment.
I do not fault Clinton for these issues. Her expertise in the situation room has enriched the academic experience for many SIPA students. Perhaps the most enthralling moments were thanks to the many guests who shared the stage with Clinton during the semester, including Peter Clement, a former deputy director of the CIA, and David Miliband, a former foreign secretary of the U.K. Parliament.
The day I fought for the mic and secured it, I was able to ask my question to Clinton, Yarhi-Milo and Nobel Peace Prize winner and journalist Maria Ressa. After introducing myself and disclosing that I hold different citizenships and grew up around the world, I explained that I’ve experienced rejection based solely on my nationality when working as a journalist in other countries.
I noted that I understood and in many cases agreed with the sentiment behind this rejection, given that the media is often saturated with Western narratives and journalists who are telling stories about places they are not from and may not know well. However, I continued, in places where there is extreme censorship and citizens cannot tell their own stories, how can journalists ethically tell stories on their behalf?
Clinton nodded reassuringly as I spoke, and Ressa smiled. She then said that whoever declined my work on the basis of citizenship was not worth my time. Integrity of facts is crucial, Ressa said, adding that as long as “you’re honest,” every journalist is unique and “that alone makes you qualified to tell stories.”
Clinton’s own unique stories were perhaps the most valuable part of the class. Her recollection of advising President Barack Obama during the killing of Osama bin Laden, and her accounts of the time she spent with Russian President Vladimir Putin in his bunker, are anecdotes I couldn’t get from any other professor teaching at SIPA.
Despite this, Clinton’s course has provoked many students in a time of heightened tensions. It has also made me question Columbia’s institutional priorities and its ability to effectively address sensitive issues with integrity — trade-offs that seem to benefit the university’s image at the expense of its students. It’s not right for the school to commodify their students, turning them into audience members and then often receding to the ivory tower when the conversation gets uncomfortable.
I am also discouraged that neither Clinton nor the dean attended a single weekly discussion section, let alone read the assignments we poured hours of work into writing. Instead, these duties were handed off to the teachers assigned to lead the discussion groups. Similarly, office hours, a common resource provided by professors for the benefit of students, were not offered by Clinton — a disservice to hardworking students, and it could have been easily implemented, whether on zoom or in person. Regardless of their titles, backgrounds or schedules, professors should be held accountable for cutting corners.
Just before our final lecture of the semester, I asked several of my classmates if they would recommend the course to other students. Their responses were mixed. One particularly positive student said: “It’s not about what I learned, it’s the fact that I can put a class taught by Hillary Clinton on my resume … That’s the value. But I could have learned everything just from reading her memoir.”
Our last class, held on Wednesday, was supposed to be dedicated to answering student questions. However, two days before the class, we were told that only 20 minutes would be allocated to live questions. The rest of the time, we learned, would feature Clinton and Yarhi-Milo reading aloud selected questions that we were instructed to email ahead of time. Of the hundreds submitted — which covered a range of international foreign policy issues — Hillary Clinton’s final question to the dean was: “What’s your favorite Taylor Swift song and why?”
The course has tremendous potential. But if the university chooses to offer it again in person, there is a lot of work to be done to ensure students experience the scholastic rigor they expect, instead of what was, for all intents and purposes, academic theater.
Note: A representative for Clinton did not immediately return HuffPost’s request for comment. HuffPost compiled additional germane points from SIPA associate dean Szala’s aforementioned email and includes them below.
Given the high demand for the course, the course was filmed for educational purposes so that we may offer it online and make it accessible to a wider group of students both inside and outside of Columbia … Courses of this size (at Columbia and elsewhere) are always a frontal lecture format, which does not include Q&A from the students. In this case, the professors chose to modify the format to allow for Q&A in every class […]
In courses of this size, office hours are typically provided by section leaders. In this case there were 15 sections led by Ph.D. experts in the field. Having section leaders hold smaller discussion sections and grade papers is a universal operating procedure for lectures of this size. This is done so that the maximum number of students can engage in material presented by a professor, while ensuring that students receive hands-on instruction and consistency in grading over the duration of the course […]
Both Secretary Clinton and Dean Yarhi-Milo have been adamant about the need for difficult conversations that challenge individual assumptions, and this is part of what they modeled in class […]
In addition to answering student questions live each class, both have engaged in programming outside of class on current issues of global policy, including the war in Gaza.
The author told HuffPost she stands by her essay.
Cate Twining-Ward is a 2023 SIPA Environmental Fellow at Columbia University and studies environmental science and policy at the Columbia Climate School and School of International and Public Affairs. Previously she worked at the United Nations and as a senior correspondent for Planet Forward, an environmental journalism organization.