A second critical form of civic engagement is the commitment that universities, as citizens themselves, make to the quality of life in their neighboring communities. Universities shoulder extensive civic duties, and the manner in which they do so, once again, is an example to their students and to other institutions. The willing participation of universities and their neighbors in the conversations of democracy—which are rarely smooth and rarely easy—is the only way to gain the long-term benefits of mutual trust and understanding without the unrealistic expectation of perpetual agreement. Real progress requires a new mindset, asking not what should we do to the community, or even for the community, but rather what should we do with the community. What work do we have to do together, by virtue of our shared situation? The conversations that follow must be ongoing, open-ended, and constantly renewed, focused on the tasks we share; they must welcome our divergent responses to that common agenda. Sustained community partnerships will help define successful universities in the 21st century, and such partnerships will fail in the absence of a continuous civic dialogue about the urgent tasks we must undertake together.

One such initiative is the Penn Alexander School, the University-assisted pre-K-8 neighborhood school in West Philadelphia that opened in the fall of 2001, the result of a unique partnership between Penn, the Philadelphia public-school system, and the teachers union. The school features small classes and learning communities, active professional development for teachers, a cutting-edge curriculum, and other important innovations. It is not a Penn lab school. Nor is it a charter school. It is a neighborhood public school intended to bolster efforts to enhance the West Philadelphia community.

Universities can also play important community-building roles when they act in more traditional ways as clearinghouses for credible information and analysis in an age of information-overload. Universities can sort out what we know and do not know, so that people are able to make sense of all the data and convert information into knowledge. By providing clear information, in certain cases, we may help to explode negative popular myths that breed unfounded cynicism, and we help to provide good data to inform public policy debates. Universities should do more to interpret and publicize the fruits of their research to the general public; this would benefit public-policy and the common good. At Penn today, we are doing this through the formation of a new interdisciplinary Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response, as we struggle to address the uncertainties and instant mythologies of the “War on Terrorism.”

The most important form of civic engagement for universities may be their own evolution as strong and lively “discourse communities,” shaped in the crucible of their members’ intense engagement with issues of personal and public moment. We can only create real, solid community by engaging—even arguing—with each other over important matters, not by ignoring or suppressing those concerns, especially when we disagree. We must form communities of serious conversation around the most compelling issues of the day—issues such as the maintenance of civil liberties in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the continuing legal struggles over Affirmative Action, the challenges of immigration and religious tolerance in a dangerous and frightening world, and the long-unresolved domestic crises in health care, retirement security, and welfare reform.

The university is an obvious setting for robust and thoughtful discourse on such hot-button topics. By fostering these conversations, the university will offer students valid experiences of active, engaged public discourse and civic involvement that will serve as lifelong prototypes. But when discussions grow hot and ill-tempered, as they sometimes do, the university must also model how heat and anger can be handled and utilized for positive change.

Most universities have now concluded that we cannot legislate away undesirable behavior and incivility with codes, policies, and regulations. Campus speech codes and similar regulations failed to reduce levels of intolerance or incivility on campuses, and they certainly will not moderate the ideological polarizations of our politics. Such measures send fundamentally the wrong message, one that reinforces the sense of powerless individuals and monolithic institutions, of cultural orthodoxy and paternalistic authority, and of ideological conformity and political correctness.

Universities must learn to use the robust discourse permitted by our society’s fundamental commitment to the freedoms of ideas and expression to educate rather than to wound. The university administration’s job is to support, foster, and facilitate such dialogue and debate, not to cut it off; to create an environment in which we can educate each other, not one in which doctrine or orthodoxy are legislated from on high; to encourage voluntary engagement over boundaries of difference, not silence the expression of unpopular ideas through moral intimidation from a privileged bully pulpit.

University presidents, to be sure, must provide “moral leadership” on campuses. But moral leadership requires suasion not censorship, conscience not coercion, engagement not intimidation. Most of all, it requires an insistence that we—all of us—talk about what troubles us. Words are the lifeblood of a university. For all their limitations, even if they sometimes drive us apart, words are what bind us together in the academy and in our larger communities. Free and robust expression and debate are essential to an academic community. Tempting as the mantle of moral leadership may be, it is too often a comfortable excuse for imposing quietude and conformity, where raucous debate and energetic engagement should flourish. Academic leaders too often feel the temptation to quietude, but we must not fall prey to it. Students cannot retreat to their computers, their courses, and their careers. We all have to engage. Universities bear the responsibility to create a context in which actual diversity of views and opinions, persons and groups, politics and perspectives, is nurtured, valued, and shared.

Universities can raise the level of the discourse. Basic academic values that we already hold—respecting complexity, posing substantive rather than rhetorical questions when framing a discussion, welcoming real input and participation, holding open the possibility that we may be in error, and, of course, refraining from ad hominem arguments —are not only guidelines for good public discourse. They also create in modern universities a readily accessible model for workable communities. By modeling this kind of public discourse and behavior in universities, we will take an important step toward fulfillment of our leadership responsibilities. Universities are transformative places. They have the capacity to change people’s expectations of others and of themselves. If Mandela and his fellow prisoners in their university of the mind could have conceived new forms of democracy while breaking rocks, imagine what those institutions more typically thought of as universities have the potential to create.

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Excerpted from Public Discourse in America: Conversation and Community in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Judith Rodin and Stephen P. Steinberg, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Copyright 2004 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/03

The University as Discourse Community
By Judith Rodin
Illustration by David Hollenbach

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