Every indicator shows enormous dissatisfaction among Americans with the current state of our discourses about public policy.  Levels of distrust for institutional leaders, and even for our basic institution themselves, threaten the enlightened public participation on which democracy depends.  In higher education, where civil rational discussion should be most practiced and prized, many campuses recently have been characterized by coercive student actions accompanied by increases of centralized administrative control.

There are a multitude of explanations for this state of affairs, but in the fall of 2015, I decided to focus on documenting the topics and participants in on-campus policy debates or forums where divergent points of view are expressed. After all almost every campus claims it is training prepared citizens and future leaders. Almost all students can vote when they are still enrolled.

After securing foundation funding and assembling a team of graduate and undergraduate researchers, we are surveying more than 100 campuses on 24 different national policy issues. Campus samples will be taken from U.S News and World Report rankings among top national universities, largest public campuses, top regional universities private and public, top liberal arts colleges, second tier liberal arts colleges, and religiously affiliated campuses.  The policy issues in broad categories are:

  1. Income inequality
  2. Environmental policy/climate change
  3. Abortion policy
  4. Same sex marriage and GLBT policies
  5. Immigration and refugee policy
  6. Education access, financing and accountability
  7. Government spending, taxation and debt
  8. Government regulatory procedures and policy
  9. Health care access and financing
  10. Constitutional government, federalism and separation of powers
  11. International trade policy
  12. U.S. role in the Middle East and Afghanistan
  13. U.S. policy toward Russia and China
  14. Crime and criminal justice
  15. Civil rights policy
  16. Civil liberties and privacy policies
  17. Objectionable speech policies and procedures
  18. Sexual assault policies and procedures
  19. Affirmative action/ diversity policies
  20. Housing and urban policies
  21. Gun policy
  22. Terrorism policy
  23. Candidate or partisan debates
  24. Other

Our key methodological tool will be examining campus events calendars for the years 2014 and 2015 and then following up with campus officials to verify and secure additional information. We do not claim that debates or forums are the only way to explore policy issues or that recording them describes the entire state of policy discourse on campuses. We will not examine classroom dialogues or course syllabi. Nor will we record individual lectures presented on campus or op-eds in student newspapers. Of course, we are not unaware of the various electronic means by which students may gather information or misinformation about public policy, but it is impossible for us to measure that.

Our premise is instead that there is an essential role for debates or forums in which important substantive information is conveyed and where students and others in the campus and off-campus communities are exposed to models of civil and rational disagreements before audiences that are not ideologically siloed.  Such events may avoid audience confirmation bias all too prevalent in the use of media today. Sponsoring a public event in which divergent viewpoints about controversial issues are expressed may also create more breathing room for those who wish to dissent from an otherwise stifling campus conformity.

We hypothesize that there are not many such open debates or forums with divergent viewpoints on even the largest and wealthiest campuses. Some issues debated widely in the public at large may not be openly debated on campuses at all. If the data supports those hypotheses, then perhaps there will be some soul-searching by trustees, foundations, and legislatures about how those civic functions of higher education could be strengthened. We expect to issue a preliminary report in early summer and prepare some academic papers at a later date.

  • If you have any interest, we welcome comments on our project and information about how policy debates are treated or supported or not on your campus. Hopefully we will find some good role models.
  • We would also be grateful for any references to the history of — or trends in — public policy campus debates.
  • If you have any students who would like to work on this project, please let me know.