A functional democracy is only possible when citizens come together to find solutions to their most challenging problems. However, these solutions cannot emerge if we are unable to engage across differences in ways that involve tolerance, understanding, and respect. The lack of civility in the public square today represents an alarming threat to American democracy, one that citizens recognize exists but struggle to resolve. For example, a 2022 Marist National Poll found that 83% of Americans believe the nation’s democracy is under serious threat due to intolerance and incivility.
Intolerance and incivility are present not only in the spheres of government or media but have also been increasingly on display at American college and university campuses. While there are many manifestations of this in the academy, a 2021 event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led to much discussion about the suppression of academic freedom and intolerance of difference. At that time, MIT had invited Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, to speak on their campus. MIT students and faculty protested Abott’s lecture which resulted in its cancellation. The protests emerged not because of the topic of Abbot’s talk—an academic lecture in his field of expertise—but rather because of views he expressed concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion in an article in Newsweek.
The incident was widely covered in the media (see here, for example). But the cancellation triggered internal conversations about academic freedom, freedom of speech, and civil discourse at MIT that resulted in, among other things, a statement of free expression that was adopted by the faculty. But institutional leaders also realized the need for programs that will bring about an authentic shift toward civil engagement across disagreement for students.
To promote civil discourse programs at colleges and universities, AVDF has supported several practitioner organizations leading this work including BridgeUSA and the Constructive Dialogue Institute. AVDF has also begun supporting individual institutions that are seeking to provide students and faculty with these needed skills. AVDF recently awarded MIT a $250,007 grant to foster constructive dialogue across disagreements on its campus.
“Institutions of higher learning must prioritize preparing students to become civically engaged members of society. This requires opportunities for students to learn how to and to practice holding productive conversations with those that disagree with them,” said AVDF President and CEO Michael Murray. “We are excited to support leading institutions like MIT as they seek to infuse open dialogue practices into their community,” Murray said.
As part of the AVDF grant, MIT will make curricular and co-curricular additions to one of its first-year learning communities known as Concourse. Roughly 50 freshmen are part of the Concourse community where students learn together through a seminar as well as courses in math, science, and the humanities.
To address concerns about student reluctance to engage with those holding opposing viewpoints, MIT will add three new features to the Concourse freshmen learning community: a weekly seminar series, student-led debates, and evening debates with invited speakers. The seminar series will include readings and discussions focused on free expression. The student debates will be designed with the help of the AVDF-funded organization Braver Angels, a national citizens’ movement known for its College Debates and Discourse program. The evening debates with invited speakers will be followed by table discussions with faculty and students. MIT will evaluate the new features of the Concourse program, and use these findings to design a first-year orientation opportunity for all incoming students and to develop more civil discourse programming.
In addition to the Concourse program modifications, MIT will host a speaker series to bring together outside experts with differing views to discuss controversial topics. After each event, MIT will hold a forum for students and community members to discuss the views expressed by the presenters. Speakers who participate in the series will also be featured on special episodes of the popular podcast The Good Fight. The podcast showcases intellectual engagement and civil discourse across serious disagreement.
Through such programming, MIT intends to foster civil discourse throughout its community. These activities will catalyze open dialogue and promote greater understanding and appreciation across lines of difference.
“This project will play a critical role in demonstrating — to faculty, students, staff, alumni, and friends — the Institute’s commitment to free speech and civil discourse. MIT aims to show our campus community and other higher education organizations that reasoned, civil, good-faith debate about difficult and controversial topics is possible and can be productive,” said Agustin Rayo, Kenan Sahin Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.