Brendan Kane, head of the Committee on Civil Discourse and Dialogue and associate director of the Humanities Institute at the University of Connecticut, said he and his fellow committee members are working to “increase people’s ability to engage with one another over their points of difference and hold difficult conversations on campus.”
Kane said a particular suggestion to make dialogue more open on campus which the committee has been mulling over is providing facilitator training to students and faculty on campus that will allow students to be more apt in engaging in civil discourse on campus and in the world.
“We are really interested in having people get facilitator training to be able to moderate conversations over difficult subjects,” Kane said. “What’s interesting about that is you can then help such conversations happen around campus or elsewhere, but it also provides you with experiences and skills as you go on with the rest of your life.”
Kane also said the committee is looking at options for creating spaces of civil discourse on campus and incentivizing research on free speech and open discussion.
Kane said the committee has been reaching out to campus groups to identify what students believe is missing from the campus environment or what might be constraining free speech.
“We’ve been hearing ideas of what people think will really create a culture that is respectful of conversation at UConn,” Kane said. “Clearly there are numerous communities, on the right, the left and everything in between, who feel that this is not a space where they can speak in the ways they wish to speak.”
On the topic of speakers on campus, Kane said that his committee has had and will have nothing to do with deciding who speaks to students.
“It is up to the members of the community; you determine who gets to speak to you,” Kane said. “Our stance really is that we are very process-oriented, which is to say, look, universities are one of the few places in our culture where, at least in theory, you should really be able to hash stuff out and we need to.”
Kane said that he feels s though members of the community should be the ones to determine who speaks on campus, there should be respect for the university’s mission of inclusion and respect.
“We are interested in trying to balance the legal requirements for free speech with community values,” Kane said. “What we’re particularly interested in is what happens when you have speech that is legally protected but is in violation of our community norms and values.”
UConn President Susan Herbst said although commissioning the committee was part of an emailed response to the Lucian Wintrich incident that occurred late November of last year, it was not a direct response to the controversy surrounding Wintrich’s speech.
Kane said that though the Wintrich incident caused a reaction on campus, civil discourse had been on the minds of university administrators long before that instance. Kane cited the recent metanoia theme of “confronting racism.”
“Wintrich was a particular trigger, a short-term trigger, but the interest in thinking about campus culture and the ability and capacity to be able to talk across and negotiate across differences is something that Susan (Herbst), in particular, has been concerned about for quite a while,” Kane said. “This committee is really supposed to bring together a number of initiatives to think about what we can do as a campus community to engage with one another over their points of difference.”
Kane said he hopes the committee will publish a report of their findings by the end of the semester. He added that he wishes for the committee to be an example for all universities on how to create an environment of civil discourse.
“If you’re going to educate citizens, we must have the ability to talk across differences without dehumanizing one another,” Kane said. “UConn should be a place of real excellence in thinking about the ideas that can come together into a structure or a platform for civil discourse that is replicable as a model for other universities.”
Andrew Miano is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.