10 tips for institutionalizing dialogue in universities

Nancy Thomas

A picture of an university building with a cupola

What are the most persuasive messages to use with university leaders in order to institutionalize our work? Here are ten approaches to consider. These are not in a particular order, and more than likely you’ll need a combination of these. No matter how you approach this, stress #10.



1. Point to promising changes in the landscape of American democracy

Shifting citizen attitudes and capacities, renewed enthusiasm for public participation and social change (particularly among youth), and increased reliance on dialogue and deliberation as foundations for social and policy change. There’s a lot happening, but it will only work if we get to scale if we move from diffuse democratic experiments to more just, comprehensive democratic systems.


2. Frame the state of American democracy as a problem that we can fix

We all know the arguments. Citizen political and civic disengagement; divisive, partisan politics; rampant incivility; and a polarized citizenry, often divided along lines of ideology, party affiliation, geography, social identity, and life experiences. Many of us are tired of these arguments because we’ve been making them for so long, but others might be new to the conversations.


3. Emphasize that we all need to be part of the solution

The nation’s issues are too complex, far-reaching, and persistent to be managed by a distant, political elite. We need informed, skilled, vigilant citizens to solve the most pressing domestic and global challenges – poverty, climate change, inequality, terrorism.


4. Repeat the case for renewing the university’s civic mission

Tie the work of the center to that mission. The President’s Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education  still has currency, and Texas has a strong Campus Compact network.


5. Point to the evolution of higher education’s civic mission

 From parallel movements to advance diversity and civic engagement to a confluence of the two, higher education has been part of the movement to advance deliberative democracy.


6. Draw from the NBT conference materials

 The materials on the “timid” university and Bruce Mallory’s opening remarks are particularly helpful.


7. Share the findings of the Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy (SOND) meeting (August 2009) and report.

Nearly 100 civic leaders came together to create a plan for building a strong democracy. One particular recommendation should help you make your case: #7, Build skills and capacity for public engagement. Colleges and universities can play a critical role in increasing citizen capacity for effective public participation, and centers for deliberation are ideal examples of a way to do so. See pages 16-17 for specifics.


8. Build support for your work from the ground up

Organize some successful dialogue-to-change initiatives and then let the participants help you make the case to the administration. Collect testimonials, track outcomes, assess the process, and share the findings with the administration.


9. Start a dialogue on campus

Involve the university’s faculty, staff, and students in a conversation on the institution’s mission and purpose, stressing the need to make the work of the university publicly relevant.


10. Link the work of the center to the university’s education mission

Democratic practices – understanding civics, studying issues, critical thinking and analysis, engaging in inclusive dialogue, knowing human cultures, public reasoning and deliberating, collaborative problem solving, managing conflict, leading change initiatives, communicating, ethical decision making – these are essential learning outcomes for all students, regardless of their chosen career path or area of study. Participation in deliberative forums can help students develop these skills. Forums can also model pedagogy that can be incorporated into nearly every academic and co-curricular program on campus. Deliberative democracy is not only a good way to engage the local community and fulfill a public outreach mission. It’s good educational practice.


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