Residential college campuses are “laboratories for democracy,” said Denison President Adam Weinberg, places where students learn to live in a diverse community, work across differences, and develop the skills, habits, and values of a democratic society.
That’s why, as Denison continues to shape the first-year student experience, the university partnered with the nonprofit organization Braver Angels in 2022 to add intentional ways “for students to learn, to exchange political ideas and engage in intellectual debate,” Weinberg said.
During a recent Higher Ed Now podcast (produced by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni), Weinberg and Adam Davis, director of the Lisska Center for Intellectual Engagement and the John L. and Christine Warner Family Endowed Professor of History, discussed how the university is igniting civil discourse on campus.
Weinberg and Davis shared details about Denison’s new August Orientation initiative — an experiential campuswide debate in partnership with Braver Angels — that teaches students about civil discourse before they step foot into a classroom.
“The goal of having a debate as a centerpiece of freshman orientation is to make sure (students) see it as normal, as vital, as a healthy part of what college is about,” Davis said.
In the episode, Weinberg and Davis discussed the format of the debates, including a debrief workshop that helps students process what they experienced and learn how to apply their learning to their classroom experiences and lives.
“We’re super proud of the intellectual and political diversity of our campus,” Weinberg said on the podcast, recalling his Class of 2026 Induction speech. “I challenged all of our first-year students to, at some point during their first month on campus, figure out who in their residential halls life experiences are most different from their own and find a way to form a friendship. And then we asked them if somebody says something in a classroom that they find really uncomfortable — maybe even offensive — take them out for coffee. And don’t ask them about their politics — ask them about their life. Once you understand somebody’s life history, sometimes their intellectual and political views make more sense.”
Podcast host Doug Sprei, a vice president at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and leader of its College Debates and Discourse initiative, said the work he’s done at Denison with Braver Angels is “signaling to students that when you step foot on this campus, you’re in a place where all perspectives are respected and honored, and someone who you disagree with is not your enemy.”