Q & A With Chelsea Clinton

Among her goals for the next five years: "I'd like to finish my dissertation"

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David Karp / AP

Former President Bill Clinton accompanied by his daughter Chelsea Clinton and her husband Marc Mezvinsky listen to Mohamed Morsi President of Egypt at the closing session at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York on Sept. 25, 2012

After hosting a session about the heady topic of the world’s future at the Clinton Global Initiative, Chelsea Clinton sat down to talk about her busy life and her plans for her own future. 

How do you think your session went?

Well, I certainly left “The Case for Optimism in the 21st Century” more optimistic, partly because the type of conversation that was happening onstage was exactly what I hoped is happening, and I actually know is happening across CGI.  It’s a microcosm of having people from government and people from the social sector and people from private companies talk about what they’re each doing in a common language with the common purpose of finding solutions to some of our most urgent challenges, and recognizing what each does well, what each doesn’t do well, and what then should be rendered unto others.  I think it’s a really important dynamic that often isn’t really engaged with, where — whether it be government or private companies or social entrepreneurs or big nonprofits or the multilateral system – thinking about what each’s competencies are, holistically and also specifically.  That really happened today, and that was great.  I think that that’s emblematic of what’s happening across CGI, in commitments and also in conversations that hopefully will inform future commitments.

So you currently work for NBC and you’re studying for a PhD.

Well, thankfully, I’m no longer studying.  I’m slogging away on my dissertation.

You’re finishing your dissertation, and you’re a provost at NYU?

Well, I was never the provost.  The provost is the head academic —

Assistant provost?

So NYU, like most universities — this is just for your own edification, I didn’t know this either until I took a job at NYU — I took a job at NYU to fund my doctoral studies, which started there. But ultimately, the person that I really wanted to work most with was at Oxford, so I transferred back to Oxford. But in NYU, like most universities, the provost oversees all academic affairs, so everything relating to what classes get taught, and ensuring quality control there, to student life. [Editors’ note: According to the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times, Chelsea Clinton was “assistant vice provost for the Global Network University at NYU.”] And I loved my work at NYU. I worked on a variety of different projects, and for me it really helped me utilize the part of my brain from my time at McKinsey or working on Wall Street.  There were a couple of projects that I was so passionate about that I’ve stayed engaged with.

What are those?

One is around trying to really figure out what the right pedagogy should be in multifaith and interfaith education and leadership.  There’s been a lot of work in this space recently, whether it be the Interfaith Youth Corps, bringing together Muslims and Jews here in New York City or around the world, but there’s never been any effort to actually understand what helps create and support and sustain multifaith leadership in the world, or any effort at inquiry into what really works or doesn’t work or even how to define what works or doesn’t work. So in no other research university are these conversations happening, and I find that really fascinating and fantastic … and with all candor, because my husband is Jewish, and I’m Christian and we’re both practicing, it’s something that’s quite close to home.  And so thinking through strategically how to help build a new discipline and what that should look like, even though it doesn’t necessarily coherently fit with my global health work with the Clinton Foundation, or academically — I teach at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia, or I spend a lot of my time at NBC, thinking about health stories or education stories. It’s something that I personally care a lot about and I’m committed to now helping people who are really doing the work make it happen.

You wear a lot of hats. In five years, what do you think you’ll be doing?  What does the future hold for you?

I don’t know.  Right now I work really hard on supporting different organizations or people that I care about and trying to make very real contributions. My husband and I don’t have children yet, and he set up his own fund in April, and we’re both just working really hard. Over the next couple of years I hope to finish my dissertation. I hope to have helped CGI particularly reach out and enfranchise more young people, and really distilling down the methodology and ethos of making commitments, and democratizing all of that so that more people, and particularly more young people, can feel empowered … I hope to become a better teacher. I love teaching. I find it really helps push my thinking in my own research, but also in thinking about CGI or the Clinton Foundation. And I hope that my colleagues and friends at NYU will really have built a platform around multifaith education and multifaith leadership.

You’re 32?

I am.

So I don’t know if that technically makes you Gen X or Gen Y or —

It’s so funny that you ask that, because I’m literally in the crevasse. I was born in 1980, and Gen X is often said to end in 1979, and the millennial generation is said to start in 1981. Which I find so bizarre. I have a good friend who works for something called Scratch, which started off as this small incubator for how to engage millennials at MTV, and became so successful that it’s now part of Viacom, and she spends all of her time — she’s one of my good friends from Stanford — she spends all of her time thinking about the millennials. And I keep asking her, why didn’t I quite make the cut? And I got left out of Gen X, so, can’t I just be shoehorned in?

People who are between the age of, I’d say, 40 and maybe 30, they feel like they kind of grew up with you. But there were a couple years where your private life was very private, and now you’re stepping back out onto a more public stage. So what did we miss while you were gone?
Chelsea: I’ve always been in the public eye.  My father was governor of Arkansas when I was born.  I was on the front page of the newspapers the next day.  I don’t remember that. I do remember — I guess a better way to say it is, I don’t remember a time in my life where people haven’t recognized me or come over and talked to me about something they’ve loved that my parents have done or something that they’ve hated that my parents have done. I think particularly living here in New York, where I’ve lived for nine years, and I love the city –

On the street, are you recognized on a daily basis?

Daily. In the subway or in Duane Reade or in Whole Foods or walking down the street, people just come up and say, oh, you’re Chelsea Clinton, and I say yes, hi.  Or I’m a Kosovar Albanian refugee, and thank you so much for what your father did.  Or what would have happened if your parents had aborted you? Well, I’m glad they didn’t.  99% of people are really nice and respectful, and the rest are kind of vitriolic. But that’s always been true. And so although now I’m leading a more purposefully public life, and trying to, in the best sense, use this resource which I had largely just ignored of having public interest in me, to not talk about me except insofar as it helps highlight work that I really believe in, whether that’s work that CGI is doing — so yes, something that still has a C attached to it, or my work at NBC or arguably even my academic work, or work that other people are doing that I think really is working in the world and trying to help understand why.

The million dollar question is, do you ever see yourself running for office?  And if so, when would that be?  Where would you start?
Chelsea: I don’t actually feel like that’s a million dollar question, but I understand why you feel like that’s a million dollar question. I’ve talked about this before, and it’s very true — before my mom ran for office in 2008, I would have said no. Not as the result of any kind of existential, deliberative process that I’d gone through to reach that definitive answer, but because just like I have always had people come up and talk to me and ask me questions about my parents’ views or my views or what’s happening in the world — and I reassure everyone these days when they come up and ask me about the Middle East, I also only know what I read in the newspaper.

And then when I was on the campaign for my mom, which was not something I’d ever expected to do — I’d worked on Wall Street and I had not taken vacation days in 2007 so I could save all my vacation time to be in Iowa and New Hampshire with my mom at the end of December and beginning of January.  Then I literally found myself in New Hampshire after she won the primary, and I just thought, I can’t go back to work. I need to go tell whomever will listen why I so strongly believe in her, as a daughter, as a young woman, as an American, as a self-identified progressive. And I called my boss and I was like, I’m really sorry, I think I have to quit my job, cause I don’t know how long I’m going to be gone. I’m happy to close up a few investments that I have and I want to be responsible about this, but I need to just go tell whomever will listen — even if it’s no one, I need to try. Thankfully he said, we always thought something like this would happen.

So I went out on the campaign and I answered questions about my mom and why I so fundamentally believed in her. And sometimes it would be two people and sometimes it’d be 20,000 people. I did more than 400 events in 40 states in about 5 months. And through that process, I really understood why politics was so important and why … everyone needed to participate and have their voices heard at the ballot box. And so at this point in my life, what that deep belief has translated into is talking about why I think it’s so critical that people register to vote, and then vote. Particularly young people — because although in 2008 there was this narrative that unprecedented amounts of young people participated, only 51% of 18-29 year olds actually voted. It is true that two out of three of them who voted, voted for President Obama. And so that was the highest margin we’d ever had for a youth demographic voting for one candidate.  But we had by far higher percentage participation rates in the 1970s after the 26th Amendment which dropped the voting age from 21 to 18.

And so for me now that’s how the deep belief that politics has to be part of any solution for the future is manifesting itself. In my own future, I don’t know. You asked me earlier about the next five years. In the next five years, I want to do the things I said I wanted to do — finish my PhD, help democratize CGI, continue to work on making the Foundation ever more effective and smart in what it does in the world, but, I don’t know.