The well-documented increase in political polarization on America’s college campuses has unsurprisingly spread to the nation’s law schools over the past few years. Dismayed by the trend, students, faculty, and staff at the University of Virginia School of Law are working to encourage civil discourse in the law school and beyond. Common Law Grounds, a new student-faculty group, seeks to identify common core values across ideological spectrums and foster a culture of open dialogue about legal and political issues.
Since its establishment, Common Law Grounds has hosted a series of informal “brownbag lunches” to discuss traditionally divisive topics, such as immigration. Students are encouraged to engage their peers with differing views, and to strive to genuinely understand each other’s perspective despite their disagreement. Most recently, the organization hosted a larger lunch discussion on the topic of compromise, inviting students, faculty, and staff to share their thoughts on the ethics and mechanics of compromise in various situations. Ideologically diverse groups of seven to eight students were joined by at least one faculty member during the conversations. Attendees discussed articles about affirmative action and possible alternatives, failed political compromise, historical objections to compromise, and compromise between individuals in relationships.
“Compromise is a more controversial topic than one might imagine,” said Professor Deborah Hellman, faculty advisor of Common Law Grounds. “On the one hand, we all can recognize that compromise is important and necessary for people with different priorities and values to live together. Yet on the other, we also all think there are certain things about which we would not compromise. But which issues or questions should we be willing or unwilling to compromise about and why? These are difficult questions.”
“I felt the compromise event was an extremely valuable experience,” said first-year student Darcy Whelan. “Even in law school, honest and respectful open dialogue about normally divisive topics can be difficult to find. I look forward to future events, and I believe attendees will become increasingly open and forthcoming with their views as the organization matures.”
Like many students, Whelan attended the event seeking an opportunity to engage with faculty and students of different political persuasions. “I know my legal education can and should extend far beyond the classroom experience, and organizations like Common Law Grounds provide just that.”
The group plans to host future lunch discussions regarding the role of the judiciary, climate change, and the rule of law, with a symposium about the media’s role in society to come in the fall. Common Law Grounds hopes to begin a movement across law schools more broadly to ensure that citizens—and particularly lawyer-citizens—remain as attuned to what they have in common as they are to what divides them.
For more information about Common Law Grounds, please contact Kendall Burchard, Director of Outreach, at firstname.lastname@example.org.