Civil Discourse: A Higher Education Conversation

Free speech is a right guaranteed to all Americans. It is protected and cherished, defended and challenged every day across the United States. Free speech can present itself in many ways, in vocal and nonvocal displays. Over the last decade on higher education campuses, free speech has presented as marches, protests, walk-outs, sit-ins, and kneel-downs.  

Civil discourse is closely aligned with free speech, with a significant difference: Free speech is a constitutional hallmark; civil discourse is an opportunity to create and/or enhance understanding.

Civil discourse is closely aligned with free speech, with a significant difference: Free speech is a constitutional hallmark; civil discourse is an opportunity to create and/or enhance understanding. Due to the legal requirements of one and the mere suggestion of the other, it would be easy to create separation between free speech and civil discourse. This would be a mistake. Free speech activities, with the absence of civil discourse, can easily transition to police actions often called civil unrest, disturbances, or disorder. Civil discourse is an opportunity, but it can also be part of the solution to ease hostilities, soften emotions, and provide perspective prior to and/or during free
speech activities. 

Until recent years, East Carolina University had a small culture of marches, protests, and other free speech actions. However, police involved shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, followed by the 2016 summer of violence with the mass shooting in Orlando and more police officer involved shootings in New York, Chicago, Minnesota, Texas, and Louisiana dramatically changed the culture at East Carolina University. During the 2016-17 academic year, East Carolina students and student organizations hosted more than 25 campus protests and demonstrations—few compared to a lot of other institutions, but a large increase for our community. Despite the range of topics from Black Lives Matter to campus speakers, East Carolina experienced virtually no disruption to service or the protest, march, public speech, or activity itself, and no police intervention was required. Why? Civil discourse.  

At the start of the 2016 spring semester, East Carolina University students and organizations began to develop a new culture around campus protests and related activity, but seemed to lack the fundamentals involved. At the same time, East Carolina student affairs educators recognized the culture shift occurring and began to develop a parallel culture centered on civil discourse. East Carolina student affairs leadership understood their role wasn’t to prevent, but to empower students’ voices. Our focus wasn’t to create division or control a situation, but rather to build coalitions that empower opinions through civil discourse.  

Students are often the center for free speech activities, and they can and should also be the focal point for civil discourse. Civil discourse, when done effectively, can enhance understanding or more clearly deliver the intended message. The latter is often lost during broad, large-scale, and many times, disruptive activities. It is only when conversation takes place that hostilities can reduce and listening and empathy can occur. 

Historically, over the last decade, civil discourse movements across higher education have increased. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2012, represents the work of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. The report encouraged a “Call to Action” that stressed higher education’s responsibility, in collaboration with our communities, to ensure that students have the skills and knowledge they need to become informed, civically engaged citizens. That engagement includes civil discourse and the need for colleges and universities to support, and most importantly, educate students on how to safely participate and professionally lead change. The report showed more than two-thirds of over 2,400 student respondents reported that they felt better prepared to have difficult political and social conversations because of their engagement in college.  

The U.S. Census reports that less than 20% of 18- to 29-year-olds turn out to vote in national elections. This means it’s imperative for higher education to start the conversations about civil discourse and engagement to empower students while on campus and beyond graduation. Further to that point, a 2015 study conducted by Wake Forest University, supported by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, reported that engaged students continued as engaged young adults as far out as 10 years from their graduation. The study specifically cited civil discourse and deliberation as high-impact practices that serve to train and sustain civic engagement.

Dating back to 1921, John Dewey stated that the development of citizens occurred through “doing” rather than simply “knowing,” which has served as a guiding principle for theorists of participatory democracy. In 2006, British researchers Gary Biesta and Robert Lawry argued in the Cambridge Journal of Education that educational institutions need to increase their efforts to understand and ultimately impact how young adults “learn democratic citizenship.” 

Teaching students, within collegiate settings, to deliberate and sometimes debate important societal issues assists them in their identity development as well as connects them to their civic responsibilities. 

Teaching students, within collegiate settings, to deliberate and sometimes debate important societal issues assists them in their identity development as well as connects them to their civic responsibilities. Civil dialogues teach college students how to constructively disagree, but also encourage valuable skill development such as listening, counterpoint development, and compromise. Martha Nussbaum, of the University of Chicago, stated in her 2010 book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities that educational institutions are vital in the preparation of students as “complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements.”  

Higher education must also understand the evolution of our students and their natural connection with digital and electronic communication. Civil Discourse in the Age of Social Media, written by educational researchers Arthur Chickering and Reynol Junco in 2010, argued that with the popularity of newer, faster, and easier methods of online communication, all constituencies on college campuses, including students, will need to know how to engage one another “in constructive dialogue around different religious, political, racial/ethnic, and cultural issues.” If higher education chooses not to foster civil discourse or open difficult dialogue with college students, it is absurd to assume the conversations won’t be held. In fact, social media is littered with uneducated rants, severe bias, and anonymous posts that can be better addressed if college campuses take the lead rather than sit back and deal with the fallout.  

Higher education has a long-standing tradition of taking the lead on these calls to action. In Andrea Leskes’ 2013 A Plea for Civil Discourse: Needed, the Academy’s Leadership, she highlighted a number of best practices occurring around the United States: 

  • Public dialogue and deliberation is an important part of Franklin Pierce University’s first-year seminar course, required for all incoming students, focusing on civil discourse engagement and ground rule development.  
  • Emory University developed a series of faculty development programs on civil discourse, fostering dialogue across curriculums and disciplines.  
  • The Society of Civil Discourse at Loyola University of New Orleans created the Journal of Civil Discourse, which publishes articles from students, faculty, alumni, and outside professionals. Recently, Loyola added a civil discourse class that also contributes to the journal.  

In 2014, the SUNY–Albany began experimenting with open dialogue sessions at student and faculty events to encourage and guide conversations rather than presentations or lectures. This structure became so popular that Albany has begun to utilize this approach in their student conferences and has also spread to the State University of New York Student Assembly (state-wide student government association) programs. 

These types of civility programs and conversations are occurring at many colleges and universities around the world. Recent research demonstrates a direct connection between civil discourse and student learning. In 2005, the Review of Higher Education published a study from Robert Rhoads, Victor Saenz, and Rozana Carducci looking at how building strong coalitions at the University of Michigan directly correlated with student learning. The study reported that change occurred at a great level when the community partnered rather than worked in silos. In the 2016 New Directions for Higher Education: Radical Academia, Adrianna Kezar and Dan Maxey discussed their research on characteristics of successful institutions that support learning and civil discourse. One of the key practices they found was that formal and informal mission, goals, and curriculum are blended with the campuses culture of social action and civil discourse. Studies such as these illustrate the connection between student learning and civil discourse.

At East Carolina, the aforementioned efforts led to the development of best practices that guided a community focused on civil discourse. Based on our institution’s definition of leadership—“A relational process of inspiring, empowering, and influencing positive change”—East Carolina University student affairs has successfully engaged and educated students on how civil discourse supports free speech through speakers, conferences, town halls, policies, and programs. This type of practice and engagement within educational research is frequently entitled “civic identity.” Dewey defined civic identity development as requiring active reflection and participation in what he termed “moral rehearsals.”  

As is true across higher education, these “moral rehearsals” at East Carolina have involved speakers and programs that discuss topics such as religion, culture, socioeconomic status, the environment, gender equity, race relations, and the LGBTQ+ community. Since 2012, the university has welcomed a diverse group of high-interest guest speakers, programs, town halls, and other activities that allow students and community members to share personal and professional perspectives on leadership, service, business, politics, social action, social justice, and literary works. These experiences are presented in many different styles and formats from lectures to presentations and discussions to debates. During the last five years, more than 25,000 students have participated in over 200 student-focused programs.  

When emotion is harnessed it moves students and communities to overcome fear and address the real issues in hopes of finding solutions. 

There are many factors that East Carolina expects both student affairs areas as well as student organizations to consider during the development and creation of these events. First and foremost is to keep the goal or desired outcome at the focus of the program/expressive activity. Additionally, emotion can serve as both a strength and a hindrance to civil discourse. When emotion is harnessed it moves students and communities to overcome fear and address the real issues in hopes of finding solutions. When that same emotion is uncontrolled, it can blind others with anger and vengeance, which seldom leads to long-term solutions. Much like free speech, procedures, policies, and programs must be consistent and support each other, ensuring that the entire community both understands and appreciates the importance of civil discourse.   

The East Carolina unit of Student Involvement & Leadership (that includes Greek Life, Student Activities & Organizations, and the Center for Leadership & Civic Engagement, Intercultural Affairs, Student Centers, Student Government Association, and Student Activities Board) in the Division of Student Affairs, requires organizations and departments to complete detailed preapproval and risk management forms prior to organizing an event or signing a contract with a speaker. These forms outline costs, marketing plans, and attendance estimates, as well as identify potential safety risks. As a start to building a culture of civil discourse, East Carolina began to modify these policies and practices to include risk management questions around protests and demonstrations. It now requires the organizers, organizations, and departments to connect their program goals to both the university’s three strategic commitments (public service, student success, and regional transformation) and to our student affairs values (respect, inclusion, student success, integrity, service, and excellence). This manner of advance preparatory effort also allows for students and student organizations to work with, not against, campus police to ensure the safest environment possible. 

Political scientist Harry Boyte wrote in a blog post for the HuffPost that it’s a vital for colleges to be “part of communities, not simply ‘partners with’ communities, overcoming the culture of detachment” that too often characterizes colleges and their locales. Continuing our development of a community that values civil discourse, the division has begun to create programming in support of this culture. These types of community-based civil discourse programs have been a priority for the Division of Student Affairs for the past year. Our belief, as supported across the higher education community, is that students and their organizations are modeling the behavior found at the national level, which is anything but civil. Our goal was to create new programs that would model civil discourse and would supplement the growing activity found within our student community. These programs encourage students to challenge each other, listen intently to differing perspectives, and focus on the goals of suspending judgement, building coalitions, and searching for solutions. Further, these conversations introduce a concept that today’s college students don’t seem to grasp well. Listen to a conflicting opinion, challenge that opinion respectfully, and if disagreement remains, walk away. Two of the best examples of the types of civil discourse programs developed by East Carolina Student Affairs are the North Carolina (NC) Civility Summit and Cupola Conversations.  

The NC Civility Summit developed from conversations among major student organizations (Student Government Association, the Black Student Union, and Student Activities Board) and student affairs staff. East Carolina students wanted to engage each other and the greater university and Greenville communities in open dialogue on issues from human trafficking to trans rights. The division built a program to both engage in these discussions and illustrate the importance of doing so civilly. This program invites students, faculty, staff, and guests from other institutions and communities to join East Carolina students in civil discourse focused on expanding dialogue and building solutions. Our job is to create a platform, empower students, and then get out of the way and let them lead.

The same can be said for our Cupola Conversations program, which proactively sets up topical panel discussions with students and community members on issues that are living in the current moment. The program was organized to start dialogue around the 2016 summer of violence in Orlando, Paris, Chicago, and others places and to make sure students were aware of resources that were available on campus and in the community. As with the NC Civility Summit, Cupola Conversations has two goals: The first is to engage in discussions around important issues, and the second is to demonstrate and model how to engage in civil discourse. There are currently six conversations that occur throughout the academic year with one each semester occurring over Facebook Live to include the large global community of students, alumni, and campus community.

Our culture has changed and both programs have received local and state attention and have resulted in East Carolina University and Greenville being identified as leaders in student empowerment, community involvement, and civil discourse. These programs and policy additions, centered on civil discourse, have led to an increase in voter engagement in national elections (35% increase in the 2016 presidential election over the 2012 election) and SGA voter turnout (155% increase), as well as the development of ECUnited (, whose student created video had more than 18,000 hits in the first three months. Continued plans to grow our culture of civil discourse include student organization training sessions on conducting successful protests and demonstrations, a civil speaker series, and annual Play for Peace Concert.  

These coalitions are built not on issues but rights because student organizations are talking and listening to each other with the goal of enacting positive change as it states in East Carolina’s leadership definition. Franklin McCain, a member of the Greensboro Four who staged the sit-in protest in February 1960, spoke at East Carolina University in 2013 about how civil discourse can create positive change in society. His death in 2014 didn’t mean the conversation ended. The people delivering the messages may change, but the topics, and now most importantly these types of civil conversations, will continue, and higher education and student affairs must play an active role in ensuring, teaching, and preserving civil discourse.

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