Campus News

Championing civil discourse

In a politically polarized era, the University has pledged to promote democracy in the state, the nation and around the globe as part of the Carolina Next strategic plan.

Informing students, faculty and staff about how they could vote in the 2020 election was part of the Promote Democracy initiative. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Recent events have shown the importance of the University’s commitment to promote democracy as an initiative in Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good.

“The chaos of the election year, the contestation of the election, the second impeachment, the Capitol riot — clearly the skills and the ability to relate to one another as citizens and as members of a common polity are sorely lacking,” said sociology professor Andrew Perrin, Ruel W. Tyson Distinguished Professor of the Humanities and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities.

Perrin is the captain of Strategic Initiative 5: Promote Democracy. Not only has Perrin conducted research on the cultural sociology of democracy, but he also championed the University’s IDEAs in Action curriculum, which emphasizes the first-year experience, experiential learning and developing certain lifelong skills. One of the curriculum’s elements is “Ethical and Civic Values,” in which students “develop their capacity to think carefully and critically about how to make and justify private and public decisions.”

For an overview of the efforts to update Carolina Next, which Provost Bob Blouin calls Carolina’s “living, breathing, evolving strategic plan,” read Updating Carolina Next, a Q&A with Blouin and Assistant Provost for Institutional Research and Assessment Lynn Williford.

Perrin will lead the initiative until July, when he will leave Carolina to take a position at the Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Taking his place as initiative captain will be Mary-Rose Papandrea, Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law and associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Law. Her expertise is in the First Amendment and freedom of speech.

The Well interviewed them about how the University is promoting democracy.

Why should a university be involved in promoting democracy? 

Andrew Perrin

Andrew Perrin

Perrin: Historically there’s a really strong relationship between higher education and democratic citizenship in the U.S. People with bachelor’s degrees are more likely to vote. They’re more likely to talk to people they don’t agree with. They’re more likely to volunteer in their communities. I thought it was super-important that the strategic plan contain an explicit goal referencing that Carolina is on the side of democracy and that we will focus on our duty to democracy.

Papandrea: Universities are particularly well situated to preserve, protect and promote democracy because we serve a foundational role in our society for providing a place for development of knowledge and for discourse. This University is particularly well situated to engage on this very important strategic initiative. We already have a wealth of scholars and other resources dedicated to studying various issues and concerns that relate directly to democracy.

How will the University go about promoting democracy?

Perrin: It is central to the goals of the University that we put our resources of education, research and service toward improving and promoting democracy both locally in the U.S. as well as globally. The work we did with the IDEAs in Action curriculum was one piece of the puzzle. We were very explicitly looking at trying to foster skills in students to be good citizens. We can teach civil discourse in class, organizing classrooms so that students learn how to disagree well and to offer evidence and reasons for why they disagree. We can model that on campus by having a wide range of different kinds of people coming to visit, making sure that those talks are substantive and serious and open to debate. I think the opportunity for research in particular is our strongest piece on the global side, the opportunity to help Carolina faculty to do work that is relevant to promoting democracy both here and on a global scale, too. I would like to see us working alongside the UNC Global folks to see how democracies have responded to COVID, for example.

What are the most important lessons to teach?

Perrin: Citizenship is an intellectual task. It’s about good communication, listening well, bringing evidence and making good judgments, asking good questions. Those are all things that we teach in the curriculum and that are skills for being good citizens as well as being successful at a career and being lifelong learners. Just being informed about how government works is not the most important. More important are the so-called “soft skills,” respecting the idea that there are people who disagree, understanding how disagreement works and being able and willing to have conversations with those who see things differently. Those are actually much more difficult things to teach than how many senators there are or how the Electoral College works.

Mary-Rose Papandrea

Mary-Rose Papandrea

Papandrea: We’re living in a polarized time, so I think helping people learn to talk to each other and respect differences and learn from each other — that is a challenge we’re all facing. We can teach them how to collect the facts and sift truth from fiction. We can learn how to engage with others and get to the roots of why they hold the views that they do. And then learn how to reach a common goal when you’re coming from a different place.

What Promote Democracy programs are being done now?

Perrin: We did a lot of work to try to give students, faculty and staff the information they needed to make sure that they could vote and that they could do so in informed ways. In particular, we wanted to help students pivot as they headed away from Chapel Hill to make sure that they would either be able to vote absentee here or figure out how to vote in their hometowns. We also encouraged people to participate in the 2020 Census. And we did organize our own event after the election, “What Happened? What’s Next?”

There is no centralized office to promote democracy, so anytime any unit on campus does something that promotes democracy, that’s part of the work we’re trying to do. Our task is to foster more of that happening, to help synergize different units who are doing democracy-relevant work. When you look at the events organized by the Program for Public Discourse, or by the Institute of Politics or the Carolina Center for Public Service or the law school, they all fit under the Promote Democracy umbrella.

What are the initiative’s goals for the future?

PapandreaThe strategic plan for the Promote Democracy is very ambitious. In addition to continuing our efforts to enable members of our community to participate meaningfully in our democracy, we plan to promote respectful, evidence-based dialogue across differences and expanding our collaborative and interdisciplinary research on democratic governance, systems, and culture.  

To read other stories in The Well’s ongoing series about the eight strategic initiatives visit Updating Carolina Next.