In 2003, the Office of Campus Life launched the CIVITAS campaign to encourage civility and responsible citizenship in the American University community. Over a decade later, the Project on Civil Discourse sprang from this campaign. “The Project is very timely,” says Fanta Aw, Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence. “It’s integral to student affairs.”
When the Project was formed, Dean Vicky Wilkins says, “[we thought about] the question of being responsible with our speech as a way to move our discussions and conversations along, because students felt shut down or minimized in conversations with other students . . . You and I can have a disagreement without having a conflict.”
“We need to think about speech as moving us toward an answer.”
Wilkins and Aw believe that it is necessary to bring discourse back to its proper place on campus and in the broader community and they agree that universities play an important role.
“We’re preparing students for lifelong experiences, for lifelong learning, and civil discourse is integral to that . . . to the notion of what it means to be in and to be of a community,” Aw says.
“[Discourse] is not intuitive. It’s something you learn. What better place to do this than at an institution of higher education?”
“We’re talking about the education of the whole student.”
In her role as dean of the School of Public Affairs, Wilkins is excited to see how the Project fits into an environment focused on how conversations can move policy along and create community. “When students have powerful discussions and debates with people who generally agree with them, they’re disagreeing on the small details, they’re disagreeing at the margins. We need to have powerful conversations that cut across points of view. That’s where the movement will happen, with very substantive debate at the root of the issue, not the periphery.”
“I don’t want to be at a university where we all agree.”
Aw frequently sees the importance of engaging in productive, truthful discourse in her work for the Office of Campus Life. “Our students are very diverse in their lived experiences and viewpoints. They need spaces to express themselves in a way that is empathetic, but critical in an intellectual way. The Project on Civil creates the space for that to happen.”
These spaces include peer-led facilitated discussions about identity, community, and discourse itself and community-wide events that grapple with similar themes. The Project also provides teaching resources and training for faculty. “Even the most civil of debates require moderation,” Wilkins says. “For professors, it’s a hard position to be in if the debate is seen as a conflict. [This] empowers them to feel more comfortable in that role.”
While Aw and Wilkins are focused on the Project’s role on campus and in the American University community, they’re equally excited about its impact on students after they graduate. As Aw says, “I’m in full support for where we can go with this lifelong learning.”