The University began its “Honor the Future” fundraising campaign Saturday morning with a faculty panel discussing the health of democracy and the University’s efforts to promote civic engagement. The panel was part of a larger series of events on Grounds aimed at helping donors choose which aspects of University President Jim Ryan’s “Good and Great” 10-year strategic plan to fund.
Mary Kate Cary, a professor of practice in the Department of Politics and former speechwriter for former President George H.W. Bush, moderated the hour-long discussion in the Newcomb Ballroom between Melody Barnes, co-director of the University’s Democracy Initiative and former advisor to former President Barack Obama; Micah Schwartzman, director of the University’s Karsh Center for Law and Democracy; Ian Solomon, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy; Larry Terry, executive director of the University’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service; and Larry Sabato, director of the University’s Center for Politics. Around 75 community members, faculty and alumni attended the panel.
The panelists all praised the University for its long-standing commitment to educating students and conducting research on topics related to preserving democracy. William Antholis, director and CEO of the Miller Center of Public Affairs, said prior to the discussion that Thomas Jefferson envisioned the University as being the greatest place in the world to study democracy.
The University launched its Democracy Initiative last year to fund research and curriculum exploring issues related to democracy around the world, and its 10-year strategic plan lists democracy research as a central part of making U.Va. the best public university by 2030.
Cary began the discussion by asking each of the panelists what makes them hopeful about the future of democracy, which Barnes said is driven by an increased sense of awareness and urgency about the challenges that undermine civic culture and democratic principles — particularly at the University.
“There is a commitment to this issue at the University that is far above what I’ve seen in other places,” Barnes said. “When you talk to the deans of schools, faculty and students, people are all in on doing something so that the University of Virginia can be a model and leader on this issue — and that gives me hope.”
Terry said that the University’s efforts to sustain democracy — such as the high school leaders program within the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership — allow the University to develop public leaders and informed citizens.
“We want to take and cultivate leadership that looks beyond this notion of simply voting,” Terry said. “But it takes a deeper dive into how do we create leaders who want to take an active role in citizenship to help their communities every single day.”
Sabato, who graduated from the College in 1974, said the University is much better now than it used to be in part because of the University’s commitment to studying democracy across different departments. As a professor, he said his optimism stems from encounters with students who are determined to make society better.
“I think we have some of the very best students in the world — easily the best students in the world,” Sabato said. “So that's one reason why I’m hopeful. I think they'll turn some of this around.”
He added that the Center for Politics exists to promote civic education and political participation, and has produced five Emmy-award winning documentaries — including its most recent documentary on the violent “Unite the Right” demonstrations of August 2017.
Sabato and the University also created the Youth Leadership Initiative in 1998 to combat the apathy and cynicism in politics by providing free civics education programs and resources for teachers in all 50 states and U.S. territories in order to create lifelong participants in American democracy. Currently, there are 119,671 teachers from kindergarten through high school enrolled in the program, Sabato said.
“Over time, this is going to have an effect because people will actually know what's in the Constitution,” Sabato said. “They'll actually know the fundamentals of our system, how it was founded, how it's changed, and gotten better — and so that's what keeps me going. A belief that we can make a big difference — a real difference over time.”
Barnes also spoke about the University’s work to strengthen democracy through the Democracy Initiative, which funds rotating interdisciplinary research projects, dubbed “democracy labs,” led by University faculty and students focusing on specific issues related to democracy, such as religion and the media.
The University announced at the Presidential Ideas Festival in May that it is in the early stages of developing a new umbrella institute to promote democracy by studying democratic forms of government across different schools and centers.
Sabato added that the University is uniquely qualified to be a leader in the study of democracy because it is coming to terms with its own controversial history through various events on Grounds and the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.