I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with hundreds of students in the early days of my tenure as University of Wisconsin System president. They’re smart, enthusiastic, and brimming with ideas to make the world better.
One of those ideas captured my attention because it addressed a topic that’s been on my mind lately – civil dialogue.
“It’s Just Coffee” was the brainchild of a UW-Madison student who recognized that amid the political polarization in our country and on our campuses, students of differing backgrounds could discuss difficult topics – politics, religion, economics – in a respectful, civil way if they have a low-key, non-threatening environment for doing so. The program showed that students aren’t just willing but are eager to have meaningful, one-on-one conversations with people with whom they might disagree.
Now I hope to take that idea and replicate it across the UW System, with the help of our chancellors, faculty, and students.
The political polarization that we all experience has been building for years, and it’s occurring on our university campuses as well. But there may be no better place than a university to rededicate ourselves to civil dialogue in an effort to help our students develop into better citizens.
That’s why I announced last week a series of steps that we will take to promote civil dialogue and citizenship.
Our free speech survey will shed light on our students’ understanding of the First Amendment, including their rights and responsibilities. For the first time, we will have Wisconsin-specific data that will help us guide policy and programming going forward.
We also are creating the Wisconsin Institute for Citizenship and Civil Dialogue (WICCD) that will help coordinate our numerous academic centers that focus on the Constitution and public affairs as a way of elevating, enhancing, and promoting their existing excellent programming and research. WICCD will be housed within the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, which also will oversee the speech survey.
In addition, I have approved a $20,000 annual commitment to the Wisconsin Civics Games and its accompanying editorial writing and cartooning contest. This relatively new effort led by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation has already engaged hundreds of students from across Wisconsin in what it means to exercise citizenship in a democratic republic.
And to assist our faculty and staff across the UW System, we have stood up a new website with resources to help them promote and navigate civil dialogue.
We know that the threads that weave together the fabric of American society are fraying. We know that distrust in our institutions is increasing. We know that misinformation sows doubt about the truth – and about each other.
At the University of Wisconsin System, we will seek to reverse these trends by promoting civil dialogue as a key to informed citizenship. This effort goes hand in glove with our role in providing students the education and training they need to thrive in our economy. If we are successful in moving the needle, we will have a better Wisconsin and be a model for a better nation.
The University of Wisconsin System serves approximately 161,000 students. Awarding nearly 37,000 degrees annually, the UW System is Wisconsin’s talent pipeline, putting graduates in position to increase their earning power, contribute to their communities, and make Wisconsin a better place to live. Nearly 90 percent of in-state UW System graduates stay in Wisconsin five years after earning a degree – with a median salary of more than $66,000. The UW System provides a 23:1 return on state investment. UW System universities also contribute to the richness of Wisconsin’s culture and economy with groundbreaking research, new companies and patents, and boundless creative intellectual energy.