Outreach

Student Analysts Brief the “President” in 15 Minutes with POTUS Contest

By Buzz McClain

His heart racing and the clock ticking, the policy analyst had only 15 minutes in the White House Situation Room to tell the president and members of his national security staff what they needed to know. A decision had to be made and made then; public funds and political futures were at stake, not to mention lives. The options the analyst provided based on the latest intelligence needed to be accurate and carefully considered.

At issue, should America intervene in the deadly Syrian civil war, and if so, how?

Uh oh.

student William Scheffer competes in "15 Minutes with POTUS," a national competition sponsored by Mason's School of Public Policy. Photo by Will Martinez.

University of Michigan student William Scheffer competes in 15 Minutes with POTUS, a national competition sponsored by Mason’s School of Public Policy. Photo by Will Martinez.

The “analyst” for this touchy topic was Connor Goddard, a junior from Northeastern University; standing in for the president was Charles S. Robb, former governor of Virginia and U.S. senator (and a Distinguished Visiting Professor in George Mason University’s School of Public Policy [SPP]), flanked by his “security advisors,” retired four-star general Michael V. Hayden, former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency (also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at SPP), and Mason professor Janine Davidson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans who sat in as the secretary of defense.

Goddard’s briefing won 15 Minutes with POTUS, a national contest presented by SPP  and created by Mason professor Jeremy D. Mayer. Mayer says the contest will be held again next year but with a different policy focus.

The briefings were delivered in mid-June in front of a live audience in Mason’s Founders Hall auditorium in Arlington, Virginia, and live-streamed via the 15 Minutes website, where spectators could see the public policy major being grilled on stage by the veteran policymakers.

Contest winner Connor Goddard gives his presentation during the "15 Minutes with POTUS" competition on Mason's Arlington Campus. Photo by Will Martinez.

Contest winner Connor Goddard gives his presentation during the 15 Minutes with POTUS competition on Mason’s Arlington Campus. Photo by Will Martinez.

For his trouble, Goddard won $1,500. The $500 audience award went to the team from Mercyhurst University—presenter Lisandra Maisonet Montanez, David Krauza, and Gregory Marchwinski II. The third finalist of the 40 who sent in 10-page position papers from policy schools around the country was William Scheffer, who graduated in May from the University of Michigan and presented options for dealing with North Korea.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to display the skills I’ve been working on throughout my career as an undergrad and in summer internships,” Scheffer says. “It’s a taste of what it’s like to be a professional who is briefing important people who have to make a tough decision.”

As for the judges, “I was impressed with the panel Mason was able to get,” he says. “They’re rock stars.”

Standing in for the president was Distinguished Visiting Professor Charles S. Robb (center), former senator and governor of Virginia, flanked by his “security advisors,” retired four-star general Michael V. Hayden, former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency (also a Distinguished Visiting Professor), and Mason professor Janine Davidson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Photo by Will Martinez.

Standing in for the president was Distinguished Visiting Professor Charles S. Robb (center), former governor of Virginia and U.S. senator, flanked by his “security advisors,” retired four-star general Michael V. Hayden, former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency (also a Distinguished Visiting Professor), and Mason professor Janine Davidson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Photo by Will Martinez.

Connor agrees. “Once I saw who was on the panel, I knew I was going to submit a paper,” he says. As for the experience, “it’s a great way to get a taste of what my career might be like. To face this high-pressure environment and get some feedback from them is something I really looked forward to.”

Montanez, who brought the panel up to speed on Iran’s nuclear program and options on handling it, says her team was “in the lab doing quite a bit of work over the past two weeks, making sure current events are updated. We’re intelligence analysts and usually we’re not the ones recommending policy; this was a unique opportunity to do what we’re usually not supposed to do.”

Hayden says the event gave the students a chance “to learn raw discipline, to look at a complex issue and glean out important factors, lay them out in a logical sequence, and present conclusions to the president.”

He was well aware the contestants were nervous. “So was I when I was going into the Situation Room to talk to the president of the United States,” he says. “That’s an element I try to emphasize in my class, that this is an inherently human endeavor and very often we don’t quite appreciate the human dimension of what’s going on.”

Did he ever have an opportunity to practice his briefing skills as a student?

“No, I never did,” Hayden says with a laugh. “Wish I had.”

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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