University President Jim Ryan announced that the University will create the Karsh Institute of Democracy to study the teaching and promotion of democracy thanks to a $50 million gift from the Karsh family. The announcement was made at a meeting of the Board of Visitors’ Advancement Committee Friday morning, and the University is set to match the gift, meaning that $100 million will be invested in the Institute of Democracy.
“Universities have an incredibly important role to play in the study, teaching and promotion of democracy,” Ryan said.
Ryan noted that the gift will also allow for the University to construct a building on the Emmett-Ivy corridor that will have space for classrooms, an auditorium for public events and areas for research. While the building will take around six months to complete, Ryan noted that the work of the Institute of Democracy will begin immediately.
The Institute of Democracy will combine the efforts and scholarship of the University’s many centers and institutes, including the Democracy Initiative, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the Miller Center, the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service and the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership.
Martha Karsh, an alumna of both the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Law, and Bruce Karsh, an alumnus of the School of Law, said this gift is personally important to both of them because they see themselves as products of American democracy — both attended public schools and are the children of immigrants.
“In short, we're really poster children for all that's right about America,” Martha said.
However, the Karsh family emphasized that following the Unite the Right rally of 2017, they noticed a troubling rise in misinformation and attacks on America’s foundational institutions, the principles and processes of constitutional democracy and the very rule of law. This, Martha Karsh said, inspired them to craft a gift to the School of Law. The $43.9 million gift was the largest in the School of Law’s history and funded the school’s student scholarship program, established the Karsh Center for Law and Democracy and created endowed professorships for faculty associated with the center.
Though the couple said they noticed a tangible impact from these gifts, they wanted to do more.
“But even after [that gift], that dark black being just seemed to get louder and darker,” Martha Karsh said. “Free and fair elections, tested and ratified locally, and by over 60 courts were rejected, conspiracy theories proliferated and finally, shocking violence ran over the Capital itself — the pernicious consequence of one very big lie. We knew that there was still more to do for democracy.”
Melody Barnes, co-director for public policy and public affairs at the Democracy Initiative and professor at the Miller Center, will lead the Institute of Democracy. Barnes previously served as assistant to the president and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council during former president Barack Obama’s administration.
“It is incumbent upon us to bring together, to weave together, the threads of these great centers and schools and institutions that already exist at U.Va.,” Barnes said. “[This will] make sure that the whole is greater than the sum — to do the things that individually, those institutions cannot do.”