The Cynic Speaks with Madeline Kunin

Madeleine Kunin, distinguished visiting professor at UVM, is a classic success story. She fled Switzerland as a child due to the threat of Holocaust and moved with her family to America, where she received a Masters in journalism from the prestigious Columbia University in New York. Her subsequent media career was brief, ending when a family and children came into the picture, but it paved the way for great things. Kunin has been, among other things, the Governor of Vermont, the deputy secretary of education in the Clinton Administration, and the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland. She has written two books: Living a Political Life (1993) and The Big Green Book (1976). Her pioneering efforts in the environment and women’s issues include serving on the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, the board of the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, and the President’s Interagency Council on Women. She was also a member of the delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference in Beijing. It is an honor to have Kunin as a part of this University, and it was my personal honor to be able to sit down and talk with her about her recent projects, and find out what her views are on some of the current events in politics today.

Cynic: You are the founder of the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC). What does this group do?

Kunin: The ISC is an NGO (non-governmental organization) that I started 15 years ago. It began when I went to Bulgaria in 1990 as a co-chair of an election observation team. It was their first democratic election. While observing the proceedings, I decided that people in developing democracies need more help in democracy building and environmental issues. I started ISC as a response to this. Sustainable development means, essentially, not doing any damage that would have to be paid for by future generations. This is a broad definition, and fits both political systems and environmental policies. In ISC, we concentrate on environmental education and management, mainly by working with local NGO’s in developing democracies and strengthening and supporting their work. The issues these NGO’s address are mostly environmental, but can differ from trafficking in women to drug abuse to education.

Cynic: President George W. Bush recently proposed an environmental bill called the Clear Skies Bill: a nationwide cap-and-trade system that would allow companies to buy and sell pollution credits. The Senate has also just approved a plan to start drilling in protected land in Alaska. What do you think of these two issues, and the Bush Administration’s environmental policy in general?

Kunin: The Clear Skies Bill is a misnomer – it’s double-speak, like the Healthy Forest Bill that allows more logging and clear-cutting.. It is not going to clear the skies; it is going to allow power plants to pollute more. They won’t have to invest in clean-up like they do now. The decision to drill in Alaska is also a very poor one from an environmental perspective. It’s very hard to reverse policies like this that have such a long-term impact. I am very disappointed with the Bush environmental agenda. It is shortsighted, and I can’t help but conclude that it is heavily influenced by the corporate oil and gas sector. It is very dangerous to dismiss global warming like Bush does when there is so much evidence for it.

Cynic: You have worked in many high-profile positions in the government, a predominantly male-occupied field. Have you experienced any discrimination? How have things changed for women since you got started?

Kunin: A lot has changed since I ran for governor twenty years ago. There are more doors open for women now, but there still aren’t enough. Women have a high burden of proof to prove that they are capable, especially in the political arena. When you are among the first of your kind to do anything, you have a burden to carry. Discrimination now is subtle, people try to sound more politically correct, but it is often still present in their actions. The biggest change in discrimination is women in education. Today, there are more women undergraduates than men, which is an incredible achievement for women.

Cynic: Hillary Clinton could possibly be the first women president. You knew and worked with her in the Clinton Administration. How do you feel about this possibility?

Kunin: I want her to run. I think she could have a chance; there are a lot of people in America who would like to see a woman run seriously. She is experienced, bright, and has done a great job in New York – people will respect that. That said, if she runs she will go through a brutal process of attack. A Republican group has already formed to stop her, and they’ll attack her before she even gets into the race. Hopefully, there is a strong enough constituency that would support her. It would definitely be a tough and painful race, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried.

Cynic: You’ve worked in a lot of influential governmental positions. How was it to make the change to teaching at UVM and St. Michael’s College?

Kunin: I really enjoy teaching. Students keep you alive and current – I like to know what’s going on in the minds of this generation. It’s also an opportunity to encourage students to become involved in public life. This generation has been dangerously uninvolved in the political community, and I feel a sense of purpose to explain that politics is important and interesting.