Some educators think they've found the perfect metaphor for political deadlock in Washington: university governance.
"Universities are renowned for deliberations that take a long, long time," pointed out Bruce Mallory, provost of the University of New Hampshire. Committees, task forces, the student government, the faculty senate, the board of trustees: Academe is full of representative bodies with mandates that sometimes conflict and competing interests that can lead to contentious disputes, bitter debates and long, drawn-out proceedings.
Mallory and others believe that divisive, adversarial politics are also being played out on the national stage, at an unprecedented level of intensity. He is a proponent of what is being called "deliberative democracy," a process of informed and civil political discourse that ideally leads to a greater consensus and more rational collective decisions.
But sometimes, civilized political behavior needs to be learned. And that's where universities come in, Mallory suggested, as nascent laboratories of democratic engagement.
"I think ... the fundamental principles are [a commitment] to civil discourse, and listening, and speaking. Oppositional or special-interest democracy degenerates to adversarial [politics], in the sense that there's a win-lose kind of goal," he explained. "A university is a good place to experiment with that."
The university held a conference last week that established a national network focusing on the role of higher education in fostering deliberative democracy -- working to improve the political discourse and, in the process, changing the decision-making culture in academe. The conference, "The Democracy Imperative: Mobilizing Higher Education for Deliberative Democracy," included representatives from institutions such as the University of Maryland and University of Michigan, which are on the network's advisory board.
"Common political discourse today tends to be polarized and positional, rather than being deliberative," Mallory said, while deliberative democracy leads to "considering multiple points of view in a sustained fashion over a period of time, so that we don’t make decisions impulsively and without sufficient data.... Deliberative democracy aims to be sure that all parties are represented at the table and come with an equal voice."
At New Hampshire, Mallory said, campus-level efforts are already paying off. The Democracy Imperative, as the project is called, has helped to organize "study circles" of concerned students, faculty members and others to discuss and deliberate over key issues -- alcohol and drug use, free speech, making a safe environment on campus.
"What we found is that much larger numbers of faculty, students and staff participate in the deliberations because they don’t have to be a member of a formal elected body," Mallory explained. He found that the process resulted in "very rich and thoughtful recommendations. Then those recommendations go to a number of places" -- the faculty senate, the trustees, the president and all the other traditional elected bodies -- "for implementation. So what you have is higher levels of participation and much more concrete and feasible recommendations."
There's another side effect, too, he said. To think: Deliberative democracy, at least in his experience at New Hampshire, speeds up the whole process.
An example of that process at work was a series of study circles about the university's diversity and inclusion policies. Recommendations from the sessions led to a strategic plan that incorporated the participants' proposals, such as suggestions on how to recruit and retain minority faculty, altering the campus climate and revising curriculums "to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds would feel engaged," Mallory said.
The benefits of the process, he pointed out, included an increased sense of accountability among participants, who felt their recommendations were being listened to. It also allowed them to focus on a specific issue and do so in a way that was reported publicly and actually carried out, in part, using the outcome of their deliberations -- in essense, a "thicker" democracy, in which anyone can participate, as opposed to a "thin" one relying on self-interested representatives. (The study circles didn't replace existing governance processes -- they supplemented them.)
Besides instilling the characteristics its proponents say form the backbone of healthier democratic habits -- they hope, to be used after students graduate -- the idea is also to cooperate with the local communities surrounding the participating universities, going beyond the boundaries of the campus. At the same time, the initiative supports research and scholarship into ways that democratic institutions locally and nationally can be strengthened. (It can't hurt that New Hampshire will host the first presidential primary next year.)
James S. Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, has been engaged in similar work, although he has not been involved with New Hampshire's Democracy Imperative. His center cooperates with local and foreign governments to implement a specific type of deliberative democracy, hosting one- or two-day sessions with statistically representative groups of people who listen to competing policy ideas and become informed about a particular topic.
And that effort is also spreading to colleges through the American Democracy Project, co-sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and The New York Times. Perhaps its most visible accomplishment is the Democracy Plaza, an open space located at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis -- essentially, a place where students can openly express and exchange ideas.
"The idea is that that initiative … was about spreading deliberative democracy to as many college campuses as possible so they could do local projects, and it seems to have been very warmly received," Fishkin said.
At the AASCU democracy project's national meeting -- also last week -- Thomas Ehrlich, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a proponent of civic engagement, spoke to representatives of almost 220 participating campuses.
"I was enormously impressed by the depth of work that’s going on at these campuses," Ehrlich said, and by "how many faculty and administrators were really dedicated to trying to ensure that their students gained the knowledge, skills and motivation to be engaged, responsible, active participants in the democratic process."