The Gift of Civil Discourse

Academic Voices: A Provost's Blog

The Gift of Civil Discourse

August 25, 2022

Last spring, President Johnson launched Ohio State’s Shared Values Initiative. Underpinning the Ohio State mission and vision, the values aim to express who we are as an institution, provide a platform for creating our institutional culture, and help us create new initiatives and collaborations on campus. These values provide an aspirational vision for how we interact with one another as we contribute to the core work of the university: teaching, learning, research, care, and service.

The values were synthesized from responses to a campus-wide survey on values and ethics. It is now up to us to animate them through our daily actions.

The survey and efforts that created the Shared Values framework were completed before I arrived at Ohio State last year. I was particularly interested in the ways the values address free speech, one of the most important issues in higher education.

Fostering the ability of its community to deliberate in an effective and responsible manner must be part of this university’s—and every university’s—educational mission. That’s why our Shared Values are so important. With their distinct perspective, the values are also a unique reflection of the Ohio State ethos.

For example, the Diversity and Innovation pillar includes the principle of "encouraging open-minded exploration, risk-taking, and freedom of expression." This principle is coupled with behaviors such as being “curious and open to different experiences, actively engag[ing] others’ perspective as opportunities for individual and institutional growth” and “us[ing] our successes and failures to learn and improve with humility.” In many ways, the values echo other traditions and programs that Ohio State holds dear, such as those in athletics, where the rules of engagement allow for fierce competition and individual growth and challenge. Or in the 4-H program, in which young people grow up learning to win, lose, and take on difficult challenges within a supportive community.

While the values reflect my own beliefs and the practices I aspire to uphold as provost, I was surprised and, I will admit, a bit skeptical to see free expression alongside words such as humility. Indeed, I worried that we might inadvertently be putting boundaries on free speech and perhaps limiting opportunities for honest debate and exploration of difficult topics.

These questions are not theoretical ones; the freedom to learn and examine ideas is fundamental to a liberal arts education. It is why the arts, humanities, and social sciences are essential to who we are as an institution. These disciplines remind us of the lessons of the past. They train our minds to deal with uncertainty, to think abstractly, and to see one another's humanity. Thus, we should be vigilant about protecting freedom of expression. This year, thanks to significant effort on the part of faculty and staff, Ohio State will launch a new General Education curriculum. We are doing so because we are committed to students having a broad educational foundation beyond their major.

To address that skepticism I mentioned, I began speaking to Ohio State faculty and learning about the serious engagement with issues of civil discourse and the particular lens that we bring to freedom of expression. The Center for Ethics and Human Values (CEHV) is a faculty-led center whose programs encourage reflection and respectful engagement on the ethical challenges that shape the University and broader communities. CEHV purposefully invites speakers who disagree on contentious issues and trains student moderators to participate in these forums. The Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA) focuses on studying and fostering high quality political dialogue and deliberation. The Divided Community Project (DCP) was developed by people and institutions who are, according to its website, “committed to the belief that dispute resolution practitioners, policymakers, and scholars can make a tangible, constructive contribution to helping leaders and citizens in communities seared by tensions, unrest, and civil discord … to strengthen and expand their capacity and resiliency to meet these challenges.” Instead of stifling debate or avoiding difficult issues, Ohio State is facing difficult issues head on, within the culture of civility and care that is distinctly Ohio State. What we are doing here is not only important, but remarkable.

At Ohio State, we are encouraging exploration by helping our community gain the skills that promote civil discourse. This year, we will double down on these efforts through our new Civil Discourse Project. Representatives from CEHV, IDEA, and DCP have met throughout the summer and contributed their deep experience to this project, which will be built on the platform of the Shared Values. The project will bring together expert resources from across the university to provide Ohio State students, faculty, and staff with opportunities to learn about civil discourse and to practice—both inside and outside the classroom—the skills necessary to engage with others across differences. The Civil Discourse Project will thus more intentionally integrate civil discourse, and the Shared Values that constitute its foundation, into a distinctive Ohio State experience.

One of the project’s signature events will be the Education for Citizenship address, presented by a distinguished member of the university faculty to incoming students. Winston C. Thompson, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Ecology, will deliver the inaugural address on Monday, August 29, at 7 p.m. Tickets are recommended and are available for free online.

As we begin the new academic year, we are welcoming over 7,500 new students to the six campuses that comprise Ohio State. What a gift that we are able to help them learn, as the Shared Values state, to “strive to understand and appreciate each other’s backgrounds and experiences” and “listen to multiple voices and engage in civil discourse.”