WILLIAMSBURG — The vision for William & Mary’s (W&M) new Democracy Initiative is succinct: “W&M aspires to be a place where respectful dialogue takes place on challenging topics.”
The initiative’s vision, outlined by a working group of roughly a dozen representatives from a wide array of disciplines and departments throughout the university, is aimed at promoting a shared sense of purpose in preserving American democracy.
Co-director Steve Hanson, W&M’s vice provost for academic and international affairs, says that the charge may seem simple, but it’s one of the greatest challenges of our time.
“We’re aiming to get people to reflect deeply on how you combine things in a democracy that are often antithetical,” Hanson said. “It’s imperative for the future of our republic that we learn to advocate for the beliefs we are passionate about, while having tolerance for perspectives we disagree with. That’s really hard to do. At its core, this initiative is about finding a path out of polarization through conversations that aren’t about division or anger, but bridging gaps.”
Hanson is an expert on post-communist Europe and the rise and fall of democracies. He explained that there will be both curricular and co-curricular aspects to the initiative, which will extend throughout the university and beyond.
“Our goal from the start was not just to include the whole university, but the entire local community in this work,” he said. “As the Alma Mater of the nation, we have a responsibility to lead this kind of engagement and ensure that our whole community is involved.”
Carrie Cooper, Democracy Initiative co-director and dean of W&M Libraries, has a long track record of partnering with the local community to promote lifelong learning and has expanded access to Swem Library for local community members. She helped launch the One Book, One Community program with the Williamsburg Regional Library (WRL), an initiative that brings together the local community with the William & Mary community for a shared reading experience.
This year’s selected read, “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life,” by Eric Klinenberg, is a tribute to libraries and the important role they play in building connections, Cooper explained. Copies of the book were handed out to the university community at an event during W&M’s Homecoming & Reunion Weekend last month and are available at W&M Libraries and WRL. Klinenberg will give a book talk to W&M and the local community on February 24.
“There is a strong link between libraries and democracy,” Cooper said. “Local libraries have always encouraged participation in the electoral process and free access to information. W&M Libraries is where residents and students converge. We imagine the Democracy Initiative will provide a platform and series of events for the purpose of facilitating intergenerational conversations between the university and the broader community.”
Cooper added that the initiative aspires to give students and community members occasions to practice having better arguments, using the framework provided by the Aspen Institute’s Better Arguments Project.
William & Mary’s Democracy Initiative launched at the start of the fall semester with a panel for all incoming new students titled “Better Arguments Bring Us Together,” featuring W&M Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler, W&M Law School Dean Ben Spencer and Associate Professor of Government Jaime Settle. A goal of the session was to provide tools for fostering debate and constructive conversation as part of the university’s Office of Student Transition Engagement Programs (STEP), which supports the transition of students into and through their W&M community experience.
Events such as “Better Arguments Bring Us Together” will be a key part of the work of the initiative, Hanson explained. For example, Harvard Professor Daniel Ziblatt will visit William & Mary on Nov. 11 to deliver the George Tayloe Ross Address on International Peace, entitled “The Life and Death of Democracies: Lessons for America.”
The project will continue to evolve, Cooper added. The working group has recently completed an inventory of courses that could be included in a wider, democracy-based curriculum. The full inventory will allow W&M scholars and researchers to partner on democracy-related projects across a range of disciplines. The group has also identified opportunities for students outside the classroom to explore democratic ideals and practice civil discourse.
While an election is right around the corner, Hanson and Cooper stressed that they are planning for the long term – and thinking broadly about many aspects of civic life, not just the issues on the ballot today.
For example, the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence will take place in 2026. The team at the Democracy Initiative is already formulating programming and curricula that will provide a fuller context for the anniversary.
William & Mary has also launched its Vision 2026, which outlines the strategic planning framework for the university over the next five years. One stated goal is to “elevate civic engagement and service for the 21st century.” The university plans to do so by: doubling down on W&M’s abiding commitment to evidence-based argument and discovery as a public good, modeling civil discourse, convening disparate views to advance democratic values and promoting community-engaged teaching, research and learning.
“To me, this initiative is about institutionalizing the value of bringing people together,” Hanson said. “We hope to serve as a model for civil discourse and to continue to be a leader in advancing the principles of democracy, much as we have done at our best moments throughout our institution’s complex history. Democracy is under threat throughout the world right now and the most immediate countermeasure we have is frank discussion of the issues.”