Civil Discord – Bridging Ideological Divides in Higher Education :

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 207 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Daniel Oppenheimer

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Changing Higher Podcast 207 - Civil Discord - Bridging Ideological Divides in Higher Education with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Daniel Oppenheimer
Changing Higher Ed Podcast | Drumm McNaughton | The Change Leader

14 May · Episode 207

Civil Discord - Bridging Ideological Divides in Higher Education 

39 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton

Dan Oppenheimer, Director of Public Affairs for the UT Austin College of Liberal Arts, discusses Civil Discord, a symposium of great significance for higher ed. 

 

In a nation grappling with deepening political polarization, America’s colleges and universities find themselves on the front lines of a battle over free speech, academic freedom, and the very meaning of liberalism itself. A staggering 52% of college students now believe their campus climate stifles free expression, according to a 2021 survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

 

Against this backdrop of rising tensions and self-censorship, the University of Texas at Austin recently hosted a groundbreaking symposium called “Civil Discord” – a unique collaboration among three academic entities united in their commitment to open inquiry, civil discourse, and bridging ideological divides.

 

The event brought together scholars, thought leaders, and students from across the political spectrum for a series of frank yet collegial conversations on some of the most contentious issues facing higher education and society at large.

 

Exploring Political Empathy and Civil Discourse

The impetus for “Civil Discord” came from Dan Oppenheimer, Director of Public Affairs for UT Austin’s College of Liberal Arts. Raised in a staunchly left-wing household, with a family history of Communist Party involvement, Oppenheimer’s own political journey has been one of grappling with the contradictions and excesses of his ideological heritage while maintaining empathy for those who’ve rejected it entirely. This nuanced perspective served as the guiding ethos behind “Civil Discord.”

 

Oppenheimer’s approach to fostering dialogue across political divides was put into practice with his 2016 book “Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century,” an exploration of political transformation that sought to humanize rather than demonize its subjects. It was in this spirit of good faith engagement with opposing viewpoints that Oppenheimer and his collaborators conceived of “Civil Discord.”

 

The goal was not to stage a high-stakes showdown or to score political points, but rather to model a mode of discourse that has grown increasingly rare in American public life – one in which disagreement is welcomed, uncomfortable questions are confronted head-on, and the basic humanity of one’s ideological opponents is never forgotten.

 

The Complex Politics of Texas and UT Austin

Creating a space for such dialogue is easier said than done in a state as politically complex as Texas, where a staunchly conservative legislature and electorate often find themselves at odds with the more liberal sensibilities of academia. Navigating this fraught landscape requires a deft touch and a deep understanding of the various stakeholders involved.

 

At UT Austin, the tension between conservative and liberal forces has played out in a number of ways in recent years. The Texas legislature has increasingly sought to exert its influence over the state’s flagship university, with lawmakers proposing bills to limit tenure, ban the teaching of critical race theory, and crack down on perceived liberal bias in the classroom. At the same time, conservative donors and activists have been working to establish a stronger foothold on campus, as evidenced by the creation of the Civitas Institute, a new center dedicated to promoting conservative thought and free-market principles.

 

The Civitas Institute is just one piece of a larger push to reshape the intellectual climate at UT Austin. In 2023, the UT System Board of Regents announced the formation of the School of Civic Leadership, a new academic unit that aims to foster civic engagement, ethical leadership, and cross-partisan dialogue. While the exact relationship between the School of Civic Leadership and the Civitas Institute remains to be seen, both entities reflect a growing recognition of the need for universities to actively cultivate the skills and values necessary for a healthy democracy.

 

It was against this complex backdrop that “Civil Discord” took shape, with Oppenheimer and his collaborators seeking to create a forum where the competing forces at play in Texas higher education could come together in a spirit of open and honest dialogue.

 

The Genesis of Civil Discord: A Model for Academic Freedom

The idea for “Civil Discord” emerged from a series of conversations among university leaders about how to translate the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry into practice. In an internal talk to UT Austin staff, Justin Dyer, the newly appointed dean of the School of Civic Leadership, stressed the importance of actively modeling constructive disagreement and dialogue on campus. This message resonated with Oppenheimer and his colleagues in the College of Liberal Arts, who saw an opportunity to put Dyer’s vision into action.

 

To underscore the symposium’s commitment to bridging divides, the organizers reached out to an unlikely partner: the newly established University of Austin, a private institution founded by critics of what they see as a culture of censorship and conformity in mainstream higher education. Despite the potential for rivalry between the two schools, both recognized the value of coming together in the name of open and rigorous debate.

 

As Oppenheimer put it:

We’re not really rival institutions. We do different things. We have different missions. The scale is totally different. I think when you get down to the actual level of where people are living and teaching and talking, we all pretty much get along, but I think at a bigger symbolic level, people could imagine us as rivals. Which was actually useful for our purposes to demonstrate that we meant what we said.

 

Civil Discord Symposium: Bridging Ideological Divides in Higher Education

The “Civil Discord” symposium, held on March 21-22, 2024, featured a series of panel discussions on some of the most contentious issues in American public life. 

The event featured five panels, each focusing on a specific issue of public significance:

 

  1. Colorblindness in America
  2. The true founding of America: 1619 or 1776?
  3. Anti-racism in universities
  4. The future of liberalism
  5. Is higher education broken beyond repair?

 

Rather than adopting a traditional debate format, with winners and losers and clear lines of battle, the conference organizers opted for a more open-ended conversational model. The goal was to create a space where panelists could engage with each other’s ideas in a substantive and nuanced way, without feeling the need to score rhetorical points or play to the crowd.

 

To that end, the conference featured an ideologically diverse lineup of speakers, including prominent conservatives like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and heterodox thinker Coleman Hughes, as well as leading liberal voices like Michelle Goldberg and Peniel Joseph. The panels were moderated by UT Austin faculty members with expertise in the relevant fields, who worked to keep the conversations on track while allowing for a wide range of perspectives to be heard.

 

One of the most anticipated sessions of the conference was a panel on the history and legacy of racism in America, framed around the question of whether the country’s true founding date was 1619 (the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia) or 1776 (the year the Declaration of Independence was signed). The panel brought together two scholars with very different views on the matter – one who argued that the American Revolution was primarily a fight to protect slavery, and another who saw the founding principles of liberty and equality as the key to overcoming the nation’s original sin.

 

 

Another highlight of the conference was a wide-ranging discussion of the state of liberalism in the 21st century, featuring Ross Douthat and Michelle Goldberg. The two New York Times columnists, who often find themselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum, engaged in a spirited but respectful dialogue about the challenges facing classical liberal values in an age of growing populism, nationalism, and identitarianism on both the right and the left.

 

 

Throughout the conference, the organizers worked to create an atmosphere of civility and mutual respect, even as they grappled with some of the most divisive issues of our time. While there were moments of tension and disagreement, the overall tone of the discussions was one of good faith engagement and a shared commitment to the pursuit of truth.

 

The Impact and Future of Civil Discord Initiatives

By all accounts, “Civil Discord” was a resounding success, with participants and attendees alike praising the conference’s thoughtful and nuanced approach to difficult conversations. For Oppenheimer and his fellow organizers, the event was a validation of their belief in the power of open and honest dialogue to bridge even the deepest divides.

 

Of course, staging such an event is not without its challenges and risks. In the weeks leading up to the conference, the organizers worked closely with campus security and local law enforcement to ensure the safety of all participants, mindful of the potential for protests or disruptions. They also developed a set of ground rules for the discussions, emphasizing the importance of respectful engagement and a willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints.

 

Despite these precautions, there were still moments of tension and discomfort throughout the conference. During one particularly heated exchange on the legacy of slavery, a member of the audience stood up and accused the panelists of downplaying the ongoing impacts of racism in America. The moderator was able to defuse the situation and keep the conversation on track, but the incident underscored the challenges of facilitating meaningful dialogue on such emotionally charged issues.

 

Looking ahead, the organizers of “Civil Discord” are already planning future events and initiatives aimed at promoting open inquiry and constructive disagreement on campus and beyond. They are exploring the possibility of hosting similar conferences at other universities across the country, as well as developing educational resources and training programs to help students and faculty engage in difficult conversations with empathy and respect.

 

Ultimately, the success of “Civil Discord” offers a hopeful glimpse of what is possible when universities commit themselves to the principles of academic freedom, open inquiry, and civil discourse. By creating spaces where people from all walks of life can come together to grapple with the most pressing issues of our time, these institutions can play a vital role in healing the divisions that threaten to tear our society apart.

 

Advice for Higher Ed Leadership on Implementing Civil Discourse

For university leaders looking to foster a culture of civil discourse and open inquiry on their own campuses, the organizers of “Civil Discord” offer the following advice:

 

  1. Start with a clear vision and mission. Before launching any new initiatives or programs, take the time to articulate a compelling vision for what you hope to achieve and why it matters. This will help you build support among key stakeholders and ensure that everyone is working towards a common goal.

 

  1. Engage faculty and students as partners. The success of any effort to promote civil discourse on campus will depend on the active participation and buy-in of faculty, staff, and students. Seek out their input and involvement early and often, and be willing to incorporate their feedback and ideas into your plans.

 

  1. Create a safe and inclusive space for dialogue. To facilitate meaningful conversations on difficult topics, it is essential to create an environment where all participants feel respected, valued, and heard. This may require establishing clear ground rules for engagement, providing training and support for moderators, and being proactive about addressing any incidents of harassment or discrimination.

 

  1. Embrace discomfort and disagreement. The goal of civil discourse is not to eliminate conflict or disagreement, but rather to create a space where people can engage with each other’s ideas in a constructive and respectful way. Encourage participants to step outside their comfort zones, challenge their own assumptions, and be open to learning from those with whom they disagree.

 

  1. Lead by example. As university leaders, it is essential to model the kind of behavior and engagement you hope to see from others on campus. This means being willing to listen to different perspectives, admitting when you are wrong, and treating all members of the community with dignity and respect.

 

By following these guidelines and committing themselves to the principles of open inquiry and civil discourse, higher education institutions can play a vital role in healing the divisions in our society and preparing the next generation of leaders to navigate an increasingly complex and polarized world.

 

You can find information about and watch the recordings of the Civil Discord Symposium here →

 

About our Guest

Daniel Oppenheimer is Director of Public Affairs for the UT Austin College of Liberal Arts. He is also the author of two books: “Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century” and “Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art.” He has written for the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, Boston Globe, Slate.com, The Point, Washington Monthly, Guernica, The New Republic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com. He received an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

Daniel Oppenheimer on LinkedIn

About the Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a consultant to higher education institutions in crisis management, change management, and strategic planning.

 

Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 207

 

Introduction to Daniel Oppenheimer and Civil Discord

Drumm McNaughton: Thank you, David. Our guest today is Daniel Oppenheimer, Director of Public Affairs for the UT Austin College of Liberal Arts, an author of two books, “Exit Right, The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century”, and “Far From Respectable, David Hickey and His Art”. Dan recently hosted a conference at UT Austin called Civil Discord, a unique collaboration between three academic entities in Austin that share a commitment to free speech, civil discourse, and the urgent necessity of connecting across scholarly, political, partisan, and ideological lines.

Civil Discord was a series of moderated arguments on issues of great public significance, featuring some of our nation’s best scholars and writers, including New York Times columnists, best selling authors, and leading academics. Dan joins us today to talk about the conference, its impact, and how it can be a model to bring the various voices in America’s colleges and universities together for a civil discord.

Dan, welcome to the show.

Dan Oppenheimer: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Drumm McNaughton: My pleasure. you just did something that I think was amazing down at the UT Austin, your conference called Civil Discord. You brought together three very differing opinions into the same room, and you had a great conversation.

Dan Oppenheimer: Yeah.

 

Dan Oppenheimer’s Journey to Civil Discord

Drumm McNaughton: We’ll talk about that today, but before we get to that, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to the position where you could actually pull something like this off.

Dan Oppenheimer: Sure. I’ll give you the brief capsule version of my autobiography. So I trained, I guess, as a journalist. I was a religious studies major in undergrad at Yale. I mention that just, because this is a higher ed discussion, and then I got my master’s of fine arts in writing, nonfiction writing at Columbia. Worked for a few years as a journalist at a weekly newspaper, and then got a little burnt out on that. Moved to Austin, Texas and started working for the university of Texas at Austin, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 17 and a half years, in communications, public relations. I think this may be my fifth different position at the U. T. Austin family, which is kind of how it works. U. T. Austin is big and to move up, you really need to move around. The job that I’m in now is Director of Public Affairs for the College of Liberal Arts at UT Austin, which is the second biggest college at UT, the first is Natural Sciences, and then Liberal Arts. We have, I think, about 11 or 12,000 undergrads, and then another 1, 000 graduate students, about 800 faculty. So I’m in charge of the normal things that comms directors are in charge of. Our website, we have a college magazine, alumni magazine, we put out twice a year, media relations, public releases, a certain number of events.

Yeah. And then I still do my own stuff on the side as a writer about politics and culture. I had a book that came out in 2016 about prominent Americans who went from the left to the right of the political spectrum. And then I had another one that came out in 2021, on a art writer who I’m a big fan of, and I occasionally write freelance books and politics stuff for, I think most recently I was writing something for the Washington Post for their book section.

So that’s who I am in a nutshell. That’s kind of how I got here.

 

Exploring Political Empathy and Civil Discourse

Drumm McNaughton: Well, that background enables you to see very disparate points and perspectives. From, not an antagonistic perspective, but what can we find in common, I would think.

Dan Oppenheimer: Yeah, definitely. I was raised, just to get really autobiographical, I was raised in a very left-wing household. My dad was involved in politics, my grandparents on one side were communist party members, in the twenties through the forties. So, I was raised in a very political household. My parents, friends, a lot of them were lefties. And I think probably I’m broadly on the center left still but I grew up and had all of my critiques of the left and dissatisfactions with it. And so, then I went and ended up writing this book that really was an exercise, in sort of political empathy. So it was about people, some of whom came from similar circumstances to me. Were either raised on the left or came a political age on the left. A lot of them as communists or socialists of one stripe or another, and then rejected it. I haven’t, as I said, I haven’t totally rejected it, but I have a lot of empathy for people who do.

And yeah, that’s my, I don’t really think I have a brand, but to the extent I have a brand, it’s being able to talk across political divides and trying to understand where people come from of all stripes.

 

The Complex Political Landscape of Texas and UT Austin

Drumm McNaughton: And I think that is so critical in today’s society, but especially in Texas where you have very liberal universities and very conservative government and other places as well.

Dan Oppenheimer: It is always a party in higher ed politics in Texas. I’ll say, ironically, yes, that’s right, we have a kind of pretty typical faculty. I think I haven’t seen the specific numbers, but I would guess you see that, pretty left liberal faculty member in terms of their politics and, and to a lesser extent what they’re interested in researching. And obviously it’s a very conservative state and, some of this stuff has played out at the highest level with the governor and the legislature. Around issues of speech and politics and culture on campus and UT Austin, in Texas, it’s the flagship university of the University of Texas system. And so it’s where these things most play out most visibly. I think not just in Texas, but, we’re a big state. And so this stuff ends up having national visibility and national ramifications as well.

Drumm McNaughton: Well, it’s interesting, because I spent two years, my career shortly after I got out of the Navy, at Dell in Austin. And I can remember traveling and people asked me, where are you from? I’m from Texas. He says, well, where? Austin. Oh, no, no. That’s not Texas.

Dan Oppenheimer: Yeah, it’s funny. Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s funny, but I grew up in Massachusetts, so it’s, certainly Texas to my mother, who still hasn’t quite gotten over the fact that I left Massachusetts for Texas. It’s a complicated state. Austin’s a complicated place too, and probably has gotten more complicated in terms of its political profile in the last 10 years.

It was a really good piece in the New Yorker, I think it was last year, Lawrence Wright, who lives in Austin, is a great writer that was about the new Austin or the ways that Austin has changed. And one of the things he wrote about is, yes, it’s still a deep blue city, but it’s also become a destination for, I don’t know if you’d say conservative, but a certain type of, the podcaster and comic Joe Rogan moved here from California. Elon Musk maybe sort of moved here or at least moved a lot of his operations here. So there’s also these other strands, this kind of techno futurist, Libertarianism that’s really taken root in Austin as well, and then the legislature’s here, so yes it’s, culturally it’s pretty liberal, but it’s a much more complicated place than that, even within that kind of broad, blue characterization.

Drumm McNaughton: Welcome to the world. That’s kind of the way things are everywhere.

 

The Genesis of Civil Discord: A Model for Academic Freedom

Drumm McNaughton: So let’s talk about Civil Discord, because this plays directly into your skill set, as I sEe it. Texas is pushing back on the liberal university. And you come up with this idea called Civil Discord. What is it?

Well, what was it?

Dan Oppenheimer: Yeah. So, the quick background is, and I was looking up some dates, so there’ve been some interesting developments have been on this front, broadly speaking, in the last few years. So in 2021, I think Bari Weiss announced it on Twitter or on her Sub Stack or something, that they were building a new university. It’s going to be called the University of Austin in Austin. So that’s not specifically related to UT Austin, but it’s in Austin and it’s branding. It branded itself as not entirely a reaction to, but in some sense, a reaction to or critique of the traditional university, with maybe a little bit of a conservative flavor.

I don’t think they designate themselves as a conservative institution, but I’d say a little bit of a conservative flavor. So that happened in Austin. The following year as a result of activism from the legislature and from some, big conservative political players in Austin, the legislature and some outside donors funded this thing at UT Austin, which was originally called the Liberty Institute and then was renamed the Civitas Institute, that was a little bit more explicitly designed to be a sort of either kind of a beachhead of conservatism at UT Austin, or if not quite so explicitly political, a place where different kinds of political perspectives could be explored with an emphasis on things like liberty and freedom and free market economics and things like that, that have some sort of valence and conservative circles.

So that was created in 2022 as a kind of institute. Wasn’t totally clear exactly what form it would take, but they would bring speakers to campus. They might have a minor or a certificate program. And then the following year, last year in 2023. I’d say in response or following on further activism, agitation from some of those same folks, who have felt like maybe the Institute wasn’t sufficient to do what they wanted to do at UT Austin. The UT Regents announced the creation of this new school of civic leadership. And the school is just the, units at UT Austin, either schools or colleges, we’re a college of liberal arts, that’s a school of civic leadership.

It’s not a super important distinction. So that’s a much bigger entity in the Civitas Institute. I think probably, I’m not sure officially, but I think probably we’ll end up with this kind of an entity within that. That’s going to be much more like a traditional academic entity, that has undergrads enrolled, and has majors and minors, and things like that, and faculty.

So all of this is in the background, all this is going on top of which you have all of the national speech stuff, you have, the aftermath of October 7th when the Harvard President and the Penn President get dethroned after coming before Congress to talk about speech and Israel and Palestine and anti Semitism on campus. You have legislation at various state legislatures, including Texas, anti diversity equity inclusion legislation, other kinds of legislation focused on what’s perceived of as a liberal bias at the university.

So, all of that is background. The now Dean of the New School of Civic Leadership was giving an internal talk at UT Austin to communications folks, that sort of community of folks at UT who do the kind of work that I do and was talking about a culture of academic freedom and free speech on campus and started talking about how beyond having the right policy from his perspective, which is a policy that protects academic freedom and freedom of speech. That in order to really walk the walk and not just talk the talk, you need to be modeling it. You need to be living it. You need to be having experiences and modeling for your students and faculty and staff. What it’s like to disagree across partisan, philosophical, ideological, lines.

So he said that in a sort of abstract way and my colleague and I, I think said in that meeting, raised my hand on Zoom and said, well, would you commit now to doing something with the college of liberal arts in that space? And he said, sure.

And so it went from there. I went and I said that in a pretty provisional way, I hadn’t talked to the Dean. About this yet, but after we got off that meeting, my colleague and I hashed out what maybe we were thinking about and brought it to my Dean and she said, that sounds like a great idea. She’d been in a lot of conversations with Justin Dyer, who’s the now Dean of the school of civic leadership. So she met with him and they agreed to do something like this.

So I think that was in the fall. So from our perspective on academic time, this all happened very rapidly.

The event civil discord was March 21st and 22nd. So we had to then pull together what that was going to be.

Drumm McNaughton: And you also included the University of Austin in there.

Dan Oppenheimer: Yes, that was the other piece. That was a little bit of a later addition, but kind of under the same kind of theory of talking the talk and walking the walk. Which is we have this new entity on campus. It’s small. It has been granted license by the state of Texas to issue degrees. It’s not officially certified because that’s just, I think, intrinsically a multi year process, and so I don’t know when they’re going to be officially certified, but it’s a small institution that punches way above its weight in the sort of national discourse.

They don’t even have students. Their first class of I think 100 students is going to be enrolled in the fall. So they’re a small entity, they’re renting a building downtown, but they’re high profile in this sort of national discourse. And we thought it was a real opportunity, reaching out to them and collaborating with them as well on this, would be a real opportunity to show that we really mean it when we talk about having these conversations across different lines. So we reached out to them. They were really happy to do that.

I think in fact, this conference was the first, I don’t even know what it means to call it official, but was the first sort of official, public, co-branded collaboration between UT Austin and the University of Austin, though there’ve been a lot of smaller, less formal things that have been happening between the two institutions. We’re not, we’re not really rival institutions. We do different things. We have different missions. The scale is totally different. I think when you get down to the actual level of where people are living and teaching and talking, we all pretty much get along, but I think at a bigger symbolic level, people could imagine us as rivals. Which was actually useful for our purposes to demonstrate that we meant what we said.

Drumm McNaughton: So you’ve got UT Austin, very liberal. You’ve got Civitas or the School of Civic Leadership now. And then you’ve got UT, which is very right. And then you’ve got University of Austin, which has its own kind of model of politics “to be determined”, it sounds like.

Dan Oppenheimer: Yeah.

Drumm McNaughton: You’ve got three different perspectives coming together. You put together this conference.

 

Civil Discord: Bridging Ideological Divides in Higher Education

Drumm McNaughton: How did you structure the conference? You had to have ground rules, I would think so it didn’t evolve into a, shouting match?

Dan Oppenheimer: Yeah. And I should say, just out of consideration for my job security, none of these institutions are officially anything politically, right? UT Austin College of Liberal Arts doesn’t have a sort of explicit politics in that way, nor would I say at the administrative level, we have an implicit politics, but it certainly is a community that leans left, if you just look at the people who constitute it. Nor do I think the School of Civic Leadership or University of Austin are imagining themselves explicitly as conservative entities, but I’m not going to pretend that we don’t all have kind of flavors that people perceive. But to answer your question, we thought of it as a series of very loosely structured dialogue.

Our criteria was we wanted two people on either side of an issue of public significance, I think was how we classified and then there would be a moderator. We didn’t want to do a sort of formal debate structure. I think partially what we wanted to model was people talking to each other and with each other and disagreeing, but doing it in a way that was more conversational.

And the first thing we did, (x) it ended up being a little bit hybrid in terms of how we programmed it) but the first thing we did was we put out a call to faculty at UT Austin to propose panels. And we got some of our panels that way, and then we just programmed the rest ourselves. And what we ended up with was five of these panels on five different topics. Each of which had at least one of the three people was a UT Austin faculty member or staff member, and one of them was external. We wanted to make sure we brought people in from the outside. And then the third could be either of those things. So I think all of them really ended up being two UT people and one external person.

Drumm McNaughton: So you had a moderator and then three other people.

Dan Oppenheimer: Moderator and then, pro and con or position X and position Y, kind of opposite each other. We did have ground rules, but really they were not super, highly specific. I think everybody who was involved, and I don’t think this was accidental, we were not looking for real bomb throwers, we weren’t looking for people who would want to take something off the rails.

 We thought about that, we talked to people, we provided guidelines, but they were pretty loose and just “Hey, we all know why we’re here and it’s to disagree, but to do so respectfully.” I think more of our thought and gaming out of scenarios had to do with if we had conflict or issues from the people who attended.

 The five panels, three of them, and this was not planned, it was just how it shook out, were race related. So one of them was, “Should we strive for colorblind America or colorblindness?” And that pitted Coleman Hughes, who’s a young, black kind of heterodox thinker, I don’t think he identifies as conservative, but he identifies as a kind of critic of what he perceives of as the left wing orthodoxies on race. So he was on one side and then on the other side was one of our faculty members, Peniel Joseph, who’s one of the leading scholars of black power in America and wrote a book recently called “The Third Reconstruction” about politics in the aftermath of George Floyd, and he’s a scholar, but he’s also he’s an opinion writer and is much more on the kind of left wing, broadly speaking, side of issues around how race conscious our policies should be. I don’t know if you want me to run through all of them, but that was the basic structure of it.

Drumm McNaughton: Yeah, I’d like to hear what the other panels were about.

Dan Oppenheimer: So that was one of them. The other two on race, we had one that had two colleagues. They had been actual colleagues and had co-taught a course called Race in the American Story, but were coming from different political perspectives on what the proper way to construct the narrative of American history is, and the way that they framed their debate, was 1619 or 1776, the true founding of America. And obviously that’s a reference to the 1619 project. So they talked their discussion and they actually coauthored a book about race and the American story where they get into some of these issues. So theirs was about which date provides the sort of proper frame or sets the proper stage for how to understand the American story.

And then the third one on race was between John McWhorter, who’s a columnist for the New York Times and I think on faculty at Columbia University and our Dean of the undergraduate college on whether anti-racism has gone too far or not far enough in the university. So issues of diversity, equity, inclusion. And McWhorter recently wrote a book called “Woke Racism”. He’s very much a critic of a lot of what he perceives of as woke, left wing policies at the university and elsewhere. And then his counterpart on this, Rich Reddick, just wrote a book on being a leader in the space of diversity, equity, inclusion, and higher education. He’s a scholar of race and higher education, he’s an education researcher. So they talked about issues of DEI in the university.

And then the other two were New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Michelle Goldberg had a conversation about ” Is liberalism doomed?” And then the last one was the dean of our college, Ann Stevens, and the president of the University of Austin, Pano Penelos on the topic of “Is higher education broken beyond repair?”

Drumm McNaughton: Those are some pretty heady subjects.

Dan Oppenheimer: Yeah.

 

The Impact and Future of Civil Discord Initiatives

Drumm McNaughton: So, how can university presidents and boards put this type of practice into effect? It seems to me, what you’ve done is develop the model for Civil Discourse, more civility with less discord. It’s not about people making political points. It’s about understanding other people’s perspectives and seeing if there can be some commonality between them. Do I have that right?

Dan Oppenheimer: Yeah, I think it’s, if there could be commonality, I think we wanted disagreement, but disagreement towards the greater end of just clarifying positions and helping people refine their positions. And look, I think I’ll speak for myself. I won’t speak for the other organizers of it.

I think there is a, we would love for the university to be a place where the bomb throwing can happen too, where we have a culture that is resilient enough and flexible enough that you can have controversial speakers, you can have more formal debates, you can bring people in who, who really, not that we want to do this most of the time, but who really hate each other, but to hash out some really contentious issue.

I think we would like for the university to be the bat space too, but I think from our perspective, rather than starting there, we wanted to take a step back and start with more civility with emphasizing the fact that people have very different perspectives can still have constructive conversations.

We didn’t want to start at maximal velocity, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily our role as the administration to ever get to maximal heat. Maybe that’s student organizations or political organizations on campus or specific faculty or something like that. Our role, I think, was to do this in a pretty civilized fashion. And in doing that, I think, hope to create more space for things that are even more contentious, but just acculturate people to that kind of conversation. So we didn’t go for maximal heat from, minute one.

Drumm McNaughton: You’ve got to set some foundational pieces. This is the appropriate way to have these kind of conversations. Are there going to be bomb throwers? Yeah. But I think you did a really good job in screening people, who was going to be on stage. You obviously had people who were very knowledgeable about their subjects and their perspective, but also, they were not there to make political points.

Dan Oppenheimer: Yes. For this, we didn’t want the person who goes on MSNBC or Fox news and sees it as their goal to advance the ball for their team. That was not the goal. I don’t think that’s the, this is getting a little bit loftier than I usually do, but I don’t think that’s totally consonant with the mission of the university. We’re about creating knowledge, passing on knowledge, exploring issues. It’s not a criticism, I mean, partisan politics, rough and tumble politics is an intrinsic part of democracy, I’m just not sure we see it as our role, particularly at the kind of leadership level, at the administrative level of the university to be nurturing or fostering that kind of conversation. For us, it’s more about kind of intellectual exploration, looking for points of commonality, but also clarifying points of difference. Because one of the things that happens in these kinds of conversations where people are either so activated that they can’t think clearly, or they’re advancing an agenda, is that you’re not even sure where the points of disagreement are. They’re talking past each other because they’re not always really talking to each other. They’re talking to somebody else out there in the ether or something like that. That’s not what we wanted with this.

Drumm McNaughton: And you wouldn’t have been as successful as you were if that’s the way it was. You weren’t trying to make points with your base. You were trying to have a civil discord.

Dan Oppenheimer: That’s right.

Drumm McNaughton: Now, when we chatted before, we were talking a little bit about some of the things that you had to think about in putting this together.

Security being one of those.

Dan Oppenheimer: Yes, that is on everybody’s mind. I think particularly after October 7th. I don’t think we ever would have done something like this without thinking about security, but particularly in the aftermath of October 7th and just various things happening at campuses across the country, we were very conscious of that. We talked to the UT police department, who are the ones who provide security for events like this. We talked to folks in other colleges and schools who’ve done similar kinds of events. Both trying to figure out what the numbers of people of numbers of security we wanted. I think we had to UTPD officers there at all times. Get a baseline sense of expectations. So UT has been pretty calm, we’ve had events that have touched on some of these issues, we’ve had events around October 7th, and anti Semitism, and Israel- Palestine and anti Arab sentiment.

People have been out there trying to have these discussions, and as far as I know, there was one incident, there was an event, I think, maybe two or three months ago on Israel Palestine, where there was one person who was removed from the audience. And it was not, he was physically removed, wasn’t tackled to the ground or anything like that.

But that’s it. So we’ve had a pretty quiet campus. So our expectations were not that things would we’re gonna blow up, but we just wanted to be prepared if they did. We were advertising this to our alumni, I get an email from somebody who said, “Hey, I’m interested coming, but I’m really concerned that this is what could happen? Basically, could there be conflict? Could there be physical confrontation? “And I was able to just write him back. Look, we thought about this a lot. These are the arrangements, but also this is the background. This has not been something that’s happened repeatedly, we don’t expect that it will.

And that was very reassuring to him, he came and introduced himself and, agreed that it was all very civilized and we had really, really micro discussions of, okay, what do we do if somebody yells something from the audience. Yells “liar, that’s a lie” or whatever. Do we give a warning? At what point are we zero tolerance, when do we give explanations about what our policies are going to be.

We all got on the same page and felt like, the guy who was thrown out of this other event was given some warnings. And so I think there’s things somebody could do that, obviously there would be no warning, if somebody attacked somebody else or it got physical, they would just be removed. But I think our general consensus was, somebody did something, yelled something out, refused, got up to ask a question, refused to get down after they were done asking their question, that they’d be given a warning, and, obviously all these things are a little bit ad hoc in the moment. It may be one more morning and then they would be removed if they didn’t. Nothing happened.

We had one thing that was a little bit tense, but the moderator handled it really well and told the guy to sit down and he did, as it was a moment, it was like, is he going to sit down? But he did and that was it. But I just don’t think you can do an event like this these days without thinking through security, and I think our thoughtfulness about it was reassuring to folks.

Drumm McNaughton: Would you do something like this again?

Dan Oppenheimer: Yes, I don’t know if we are or not for a variety of reasons, but we might. I actually haven’t debriefed. I think I have a meeting next week with the dean where we’ll do our debrief on this event and talk, talk about if it’s something that we want to do again.

I think we definitely would. I don’t think we were scared off from doing it. I think we felt like it was constructive and people enjoyed it. And we made a lot of good connections and it just felt like it was a success on all fronts. We had our critiques, we would probably revise it in certain ways but we would definitely, we felt empowered to do something like this again. In fact, I would probably be, I was sufficiently, I, I don’t know if the Dean will be on the same page with this or not. I felt like we could probably push into even more hot topics if we did it again.

We could touch on Israel, Palestine, and things. I think we’ve had enough experience at the university now that we could do it again. I think the question will be when we sit down to think about whether we want to do it or not is how important is it or not? I think a lot of universities have woken up to the notion that doing these kinds of things is important and you’re seeing a lot of it and you’re seeing a lot of people really rise to the occasion.

It felt really significant and important to do this at the moment that we decided to do it, but these politics are changing all the time. Will it feel as essential? Will other people have stepped into the breach and be doing so much of this kind of stuff that our energies are better spent elsewhere?

I don’t know, and also, I don’t know that’s a very campus by campus thing. Like I’ve seen a lot of good stuff happening at UT Austin. I think there’s a lot of places where a lot of really good stuff in this space is happening because people have realized they need to be doing it. But there may be campuses where things are too tense or nobody’s willing to step forth and organize something like this where it’s really essential.

So for us, I think it’s a question of more whether it makes sense for other reasons than that we would have been scared off from doing it. I think we’ve been validated in doing it.

 

Advice for Implementing Civil Discourse in Higher Education

Drumm McNaughton: What advice would you give to a college who wants to do something like this?

 I think what worked for us was a mix of control and openness. I think it was important that we put the call out to our faculty asking them to propose panels. But we kept the kind of decision making about what panels we would do in our control. The deans of the liberal arts and the civic leadership, and some other folks like me.

So we kept the control for what it was going to be in our hands, but we were pretty transparent about what we were doing and what the process was. We were pretty open to feedback and proposals from people on the outside. We tried to announce it as early as possible. I did get emails from faculty who are frustrated with us for doing it. I think there were various critiques from different angles, but I think we gave it enough time and there was enough transparency that we were able to maNage things.

Dan Oppenheimer: I’m trying to think of what other advice. Hire my Assistant Director of Public Affairs, who’s an extraordinarily good organizer of, and. don’t hire her! But she’s incredibly competent and organized, and so just the logistical piece of it. Really, I don’t think a single thing went wrong, honestly. So that was enormously reassuring to me because these it’s funny, with the people who come to these things, whatever it was, it was one full day. And then at one, one session the night before, it doesn’t seem like some massive thing, but it’s a pretty big endeavor on our end in terms of contracts with outside vendors, with AV.

 It’s a big endeavor for a small team. It was on a pretty short timeline from our perspective. I think certainly if we do it again next year, we’re going to start now and give ourselves a longer runway than we did. We turned it all around in about six months, that felt very short. There were reasons we wanted to do it, we didn’t want to push it into the Fall because that’s when things were gearing up for the legislative session. The Texas legislature meets for six months, every other year. It was after the last legislative session, but as far from the next one as we could realistically do. And once we get to the Fall issues will start bubbling up and it’ll just get more fraught and then the Spring you’re in the legislative session, so I think giving yourself a year, if you can, to organize something of this scale is a good idea. If it’s just smaller things, I think you can do it on a shorter timeline.

Drumm McNaughton: Dan, this has been a fabulous conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the details behind this as well as the overall picture. I think you’ve really developed a model for how you can have disparate groups come together and have a true dialogue without trying to make one person right, one person wrong. I think that’s really important for higher ed.

If you would, three takeaways for university presidents and boards.

Dan Oppenheimer: So here are my three. One is. I think there’s a real appetite for this. I think we got a lot of positive feedback from alumni. There’s a lot of faculty who are really supportive of this. A lot of my colleagues in communications at other colleges and schools around the university. I think there’s a real appetite for something like this. I think it’s an opportunity for administrators, leaders to step into the breach and show that they are supportive of academic freedom, free speecH. I think connected to that, I’m going to give you four things, Drumm

So here’s number two. Everybody saw the presidents of Harvard and Penn get toppled because they went before Congress and whatever your feelings about the various politics, I think there’s probably a consensus agreement that they weren’t totally prepared for that high stakes of political confrontation. And my sense is a lot of university leadership is not prepared for this kind of real, rough and tumble, bomb throwing, high stakes politics around these issues.

So the value of doing something like this, where you can control the content, you can control the format, you can keep the stakes moderately low, is that it’s a way to get in shape. It’s a form of controlled sparring where you can get in shape politically for the kind of thing that you can’t control, which is the politics that come at you from the outside that you have to respond to in one way or another. So I would recommend, I guess one takeaway is do something like this now where you can control the stakes and you can control the context so you can get that practice for when it comes at you unexpectedly.

You can expect that it will come at you unexpectedly. So that’s the second.

Drumm McNaughton: Learn to walk before you have to

run.

Dan Oppenheimer: Exactly. The third is, and I said this a little bit just now, which is, retain control over the process but make aspects of it open and transparent so that you can both build buy-in from your community, but also give the people who are not really on board with something like this time to vent their feelings and process their reaction to it. So some mix between control and openness and transparency.

And I guess the other thing I would say that one of the things that I Think about, and I have to be careful about this because we can’t advocate politically at the University of Texas at Austin as a state entity, but I think something I can say is, I think as universities we have interest in carving out as wide a space as possible for free speech, the academic freedom of our faculty, and there’s a real opportunity right now, this is just my two cents political perspective on things, which is that people on the left and the right, both in different ways, feel like their speech is under attack from the other side.

With some respects, that’s not great, but what that means is there might be a real opportunity for shared interest across political lines in doing an event like this, where each side can provide cover for the other. And the end result is, if what you care about is how much space is there in the discourse for your faculty to speak freely, then you’re expanding that space for both sides. So there’s a real strategic value, I think, in allowing each side and then the center and then whatever it is that the administration is to all provide cover for each other, and in so doing expand.

The overall space for speech on campus. Which is something that I thought, look, there’s probably a few institutions which are, so where their mission is not necessarily consonant with academic freedom and free speech. But I think for the vast majority of us as university staff and leaders, we have a kind of shared interest in there being as much protection for that and as much space for that as possible. And so this is a real opportunity to work together across partisan lines where there’s a shared interest in speech.

Drumm McNaughton: Those are great takeaways, thank you.

 

Dan Oppenheimer’s Next Steps and Closing Thoughts

Drumm McNaughton: What’s next for you?

 What’s next for me? So personally, I’m going to plug my own, I’m going to take a point of personal privilege. I have my own sub stack newsletter. It’s called Eminent Americans, I’m always working on that. That’s about the contemporary American intellectual scene. It’s not primarily about higher education, but we get into all of those issues. So I’m always working on that, and sometimes it’s a podcast, sometimes it’s a newsletter.

On the professional front, we just wrapped up the spring issue of our alumni magazine, it’s off to the printers, so that’ll get out there in the world, and our Fall issue is a real experiment. It’s called our class of 1984. I just think, People find this interesting. At least I do. It’s our class of 1984 issue. So we sent out a big survey to all our alumni from the class of 1984, asking them a lot of questions about where they are now, what their experience was like. And we’re going to do a whole issue that’s themed around that class. Some of it will be about what happened to the people who were in that class, but a lot of it will be about what life was like on campus then, and we’re going to design it, and I might design or do it in some version of 1984 magazine design style. So it’s going to be a deliberately retro endeavor. So we’re starting to work on that. I think that’ll be a lot of fun. I’m hoping our alumni, even those who were not the class of 1984, which is most of them will enjoy that experience.

Drumm McNaughton: That’ll be neat. I look forward to seeing a copy if you’ll send one over to me. Dan, thank you so much for being on the program. Thoroughly enjoy the conversation and I look forward to the next

Dan Oppenheimer: Thanks Yeah. Thanks for having me on. was great. Always happy to chat.

Drumm McNaughton: Thanks for listening today. A special thanks to Dan Oppenheimer, Director of Public Affairs for the UT Austin College of Liberal Arts, and for his sharing with us UT Austin’s recent program, Civil Discord, which can be a model for higher education and education and bringing the various voices in America’s colleges and universities together for a civil conversation.

Join us next week when we welcome Cesar Santello to the program. Cesar will be joining us to talk about how universities and colleges can use design thinking, or what we call systems or holistic thinking, as a model for organization change. One that enables rapid innovation while mitigating resistance to change.

Thanks again for listening. See you next week.

 

 

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