ACTA in the News | Freedom of Expression

Now, more than ever, civil discourse is critical. VMI is leading the way

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH   |  January 2, 2024 by Kim Connolly

How do college students openly and calmly address controversial subjects — a problem especially since the Israel-Hamas War’s polarization on campuses? Universities need practical approaches to prepare students for a fragmented and volatile world, in which compromise is needed more than confrontation. The Virginia Military Institute is demonstrating such an approach and it’s seen as an example for the nation.

“The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic,” stated the University of Chicago’s Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action, issued at the height of protests over the Vietnam War and the need for civil rights. The report further stated, “to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, (a university) must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.”

But that’s not happening at many universities. Viewpoints are either morally superior or wrong, shout-downs replace debates and dissenting speakers are canceled or heckled. Most recently, Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel ignited firestorms on campuses. As a result, fear and anger have spread on campuses. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s College Free Speech Rankings revealed that 26% of college students censor themselves at least a few times a week in conversations with friends. One in four are more likely to self-censor now than when they started college.

To ensure freedom of speech and safety on campuses, Gov. Glenn Youngkin convened a summit of Virginia’s public and private college presidents and asked VMI’s superintendent, Major General Cedric Wins, U.S. Army (retired), to address VMI’s program for promoting civil discourse through debates. The debates are not competitive, nor seek to change minds. Their purpose is to enlighten and show how to disagree thoughtfully and respectfully. This is in keeping with VMI’s leadership development, which emphasizes service, respect and civility.

The debates have examined such divisive topics as diversity, equity and inclusion, social media, women in combat and divides between student athletes and nonathletes. Debates follow a light parliamentary format that promotes discussion, listening and critical thinking. Following presentations, speakers and audience members may address comments to the trained debate moderator, thus avoiding personalizing clashing viewpoints.

In November, VMI pushed the program’s bounds. It invited students from Mountain Gateway Community College, Southern Virginia University and Washington and Lee University to participate in an intercollegiate debate on book banning in K-12 schools. The debate attracted over 100 participants from these schools. The following student comments attest to the program’s value:

“I have never in my life been involved in such a thought-provoking discussion, getting to understand the ideas and thoughts of not only other VMI cadets but also students from other colleges. Braver Angels has helped me gain a new perspective on discussion and communication in my generation,” said VMI cadet Isabella Bruzonic. “I got to hear perspectives I would have never thought of. I gained respect for the people who were willing to have a conversation without anger and animosity.”

“I was grateful for the opportunity to speak my mind candidly in an environment where candid opinions were welcome,” said Jared Smith, a Southern Virginia University student. “During this time of political and ideological polarization in America, we need more events like these! We have the freedom of speech in America, but it hardly serves our society if we do not implement the structure and activities that give people the opportunity to exercise it productively and peacefully.” 

VMI initiated the program in 2021, based on the acclaimed College Debates and Discourse Program, jointly sponsored by Braver Angels, American Council of Trustees and Alumni and Bridges USA. In January 2023, VMI was named one of 10 colleges in the country in the program’s Community of Practice, enabled by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. These institutions are collecting data on the debates, which the University of Delaware will use to assess students’ performance, and leadership skills.

Alex Morey of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression states, “The college campus is the place to have people’s different authentic views come together, where we can have discussions in a scholarly and civil way.”

That’s VMI’s civil discourse program and universities need similar programs. But VMI provides another example. VMI “introducing Braver Angels debates and civil discourse to other colleges in the surrounding area is exemplary for the nation,” said Doug Sprei, director of the College Debates and Discourse Alliance. Higher education needs more champions of civil discourse.

This post appeared on the Richmond Times-Dispatch on January 2, 2024.


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