As today’s political climate turns increasingly divisive, we tend to hear a common refrain — a pining for “simpler times” when politics felt less contentious.
It’s debatable if those times ever existed. One stance is that the “civility” of this bygone era that we pine for too often came at the expense of free speech, justice and equity for those who held less power. And yet it’s certain modern politics are in deeply troubled waters.
When political disputes arise, I recall what a faculty member told me early in my career: a university should be a “house of conflict,” where a wide swath of perspectives are discussed and debated in search of greater understanding. Embracing the idea that conflict is inevitable, even healthy, clarifies our purpose as a university and the role we play within a democratic society.
In my State of the Campus address last fall, I said that CU Boulder must rededicate itself to supporting and sustaining democracy every day. Each of us has a responsibility and a role to play by supporting free speech and thoughtful discourse, conducting research that informs policy and serves the public good, and enabling and encouraging participation in the democratic process, to prepare students to become leaders in our state, country and world.
By doing these things, we can inspire a generation of Forever Buffs who value principled leadership, demand integrity and embrace compromise across political divides. And we can model for all of society what it means to hold fast to democratic principles even in the face of intolerance, gridlock and animosity.
So how do we get there?
There’s no singular answer, but I believe every action we take as a university must include these attributes:
The university must commit to open communication that intentionally focuses on equity, justice and the inclusion of diverse voices.
We need more organizations that foster reasoned discourse and bring new voices and broad perspectives to conversations about social issues.
It’s also important to differentiate between spirited public debate and the self-interested confrontation that degrades democracy. Valuable arguments persuade rather than stifle.
We also must encourage all — particularly students — to participate in democratic processes.
I’m proud that CU Boulder participates in the All In Campus Democracy Challenge, which encourages campuses to achieve excellence in nonpartisan student democratic engagement.
Supporting democracy is a tall order, and we won’t get it right every time. But it’s important that we make that effort.
Philip P. DiStefano is the 11th chancellor of CU Boulder. He is the Quigg and Virginia S. Newton Endowed Chair in Leadership, overseeing CU Boulder’s leadership programs.
Photo by Patrick Campbell