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Faculty and staff from University of Delaware and universities across the nation attended the first-of-its-kind meeting.
By Michael Morris, SNF Ithaca Initiative Graduate Fellow and Chelsia Douglas, Whittington Graduate Fellow
On October 22, 2021, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Ithaca Initiative of the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration convened a first-of-its-kind national summit of scholars at the University of Delaware.
Focused on the topic of “bringing civility to college campuses and beyond," the meeting was an opportunity for the newly established SNF Ithaca Initiative at the Biden School to introduce itself as a leader and collaborative partner in the field of civil discourse, as well as facilitate conversation, collaboration and relationships with fellow institutions who share the SNF Ithaca Initiative mission of promoting civil discourse as a way of sustaining and preserving democracy.
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Biden Institute Chair Valerie Biden Owens and University of Pennsylvania SNF Paideia Executive Director Leah Seppanen Anderson.
The event opened with remarks from campus leaders reflecting on the significance of the day, including University President Dennis Assanis, who shared his hope that building civil discourse skills would soon be part of the curriculum for all UD students, and Chair of the Biden Institute Valerie Biden Owens, who said, “Universities have the power to shape the next generation of thought-leaders and policy makers"—a belief she noted as sharing with her brother, President Biden. SNF Ithaca Initiative Faculty Director Philip Barnes also offered an anecdote in which the future president had previously charged the Biden School faculty with guiding students to elevate the level of national discourse.
Biden School Dean Maria Aristigueta.
Other UD attendees included administrators, faculty and staff from the Biden School, Biden Institute, Department of Communications and Center for Political Communication, who met with representatives from American University, Colgate University, Florida International University, Georgetown University, Kansas State University, and University of New Hampshire, as well as SNF partners Johns Hopkins University's SNF Agora Institute and University of Pennsylvania's SNF Paideia Program. Together, participants shared current and future plans for conducting civil discourse education and programming on their campuses—from seminars to discussion forums and special events—all aimed at engaging students and their respective campus communities in the civility effort.
The dialogue encompassed several topics and challenges, including convening and balancing differences, maneuvering threats to academic freedom and student expression, organizing curricula, program and performance management and cultivating citizenship. One focus was on how the value of civil discourse initiatives could be demonstrated to students, both by providing a record or credential for those who invested time and energy into building their skills, and by measuring and reporting the value and outcomes of having those skills.
Renee Guarriello Heath, co-director of the Civil Discourse Lab at the University of New Hampshire, discussed her current research involving interviews with alumni who speak extensively about the value they find in applying the civil discourse skills they gained to their careers and lives after college.
University of Arizona National Institute for Civil Discourse Director Timothy Shaffer.
Timothy Shaffer, director of civic engagement and deliberative democracy for the National Institute for Civil Discourse, also shared current metrics scholars use to capture skill development in civil discourse, which include engaging in political activities, defining citizenship in communal terms and analyzing and critiquing political processes in sophisticated ways.
Another area of emphasis was the concept of civility itself, with attendees acknowledging that the term carries varying connotations, especially for historically underrepresented or oppressed monitories.
“Civil discourse is about being generous in one's openness to ideas, but that generosity is not equally burdensome," noted Lara Schwartz, former civil rights lawyer and founding director of American University's Project on Civil Discourse. A reminder echoed by Ian MacMullen, political theorist from the University of Pennsylvania's SNF Paideia Program, who regarded civil discourse as “one tool in the toolbox" of democracy, for which educating students on how and when to use is key.
The event concluded with participants agreeing to take part in similar meetings, both in person and virtually, with coordination from Barnes and Executive Director of the Biden Institute Catherine McLaughlin, to allow for a continual exchange of plans and ideas among the group going forward.