Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, came to speak at St. Thomas on Feb. 16. It was a wonderfully successful event. The lecture, titled “Conflict and Civility in the Age of Obama,” was followed by a question-and-answer session moderated by Tom Crann from Minnesota Public Radio. The auditorium was full and included members of both the local community and many students.

St. Thomas holds a lot of public events throughout the year, whether they are lectures by well-known figures or panel discussions focused on interesting topics. After all, such events are one important way that colleges and universities contribute to the communities in which they reside. So why am I bothering to single out this one, albeit outstanding, event?

Because Mr. Meacham’s lecture is the inaugural Public Discourse Lecture in a recently launched annual series that is part of a new and broader civil discourse initiative in CAS. The lecture series has been established by the College of Arts and Sciences Board of Advisors. It is dedicated to the civil discussion of important ideas. We believe it will offer opportunities for our students and the public to engage with stimulating thinkers on a wide range of topics and to do so while modeling civil engagement around potentially controversial themes.

The lecture series is embedded in a broader push within CAS to more explicitly promote civil discourse. The concept, of course, is not new to St. Thomas. In fact, it draws directly from our mission to educate “morally responsible leaders” and has been promoted in one way or another across the campus for as long as we have existed, whether in law school classes, in Student Affairs programming, in the ways we emphasize engaging with others’ narratives in our English courses, or the emphasis on logic in our philosophy classes, to name just a few examples. But now, we are working to bring these and other elements together to more consciously and broadly promote civil discourse.

In addition to the lecture series, we are raising funds to establish an endowed chair in civil discourse and are hoping to have approved a new first-year involvement program with civil discourse as the theme. The endowed chair would teach and engage in scholarly work just as all faculty do, but in addition would promote the topic in various venues (and using various approaches) across the college and university. If approved by the faculty, the new first-year program would bring together course work and Student Affairs programming in a new and exciting way.

I believe this initiative, the details of which I have only touched on here, will impact our students and the broader community in important ways. In fact, the former already is happening. Just the launching of this initiative started a conversation among our students and our faculty regarding the merits of civil discourse. There were disagreements, with some strong supporters and others less sure. But in having the debate, the participants were focusing on both the issue of civil discourse and the practice of it. In other words, the learning already has begun.

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