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Across the Conversation – an overview of “Science and Democracy”

Across the Conversation – an overview of “Science and Democracy”

Moderated by UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Chris Clemens and featuring an introduction from PPD Faculty Director Sarah Treul, this week’s Abbey Speaker Series event with Luana Maroja and former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 delved into the role and responsibilities of science and scientists in both democracy and the classroom.
Across the conversation, our panelists discussed how the numerous roles scientists often inhabit – be it as citizens, educators, or communicators – complicate their positions in a democracy.
Maroja noted that scientists put themselves at risk of overstepping the boundaries of their expertise when they leverage their privileged positions to effect change around issues they see in society, particularly when advocating for specific policy measures. Due to scientific consensus’ tendency to evolve and the trade-offs made when making political decisions, she believes that when a scientist is proven incorrect, such advocacy can decrease trust in science overall.
Thorp addressed the human nature of scientists and their potential for motivated reasoning, focusing on how this makes science equally susceptible to the human flaws of racism, sexism, and the like. He also highlighted political partisanship as a complicating factor, arguing that the tendency for parties to endorse opposing solutions to a problem makes it difficult to address the substance of scientific issues.
Despite occasional differences, both panelists agreed about science’s successes (the speed with which a vaccine was developed and its significant efficacy in reducing the risk of severe illness and death) and challenges (the political considerations that went into addressing theories about the virus’ origins and the ambiguity in public health messaging and protocols) throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our contributors also found consensus in the fact that science needs to function as a self-correcting process and that teaching students how to debate and deliberate with one another over evidence is essential to both science and democracy.
We invite you to share your thoughts on the discussion with us in the video’s comment section or on Twitter and Facebook.
Kevin Marinelli discusses the meaning of civility and the power of disruptive protest on WCHL

Kevin Marinelli discusses the meaning of civility and the power of disruptive protest on WCHL

PPD Executive Director Kevin Marinelli sat down with Aaron Keck on WCHL to discuss our program and the Agora Fellows, his research into public argument and protest, and public discourse best practices for everyday life.
At the start of the conversation, Keck and Marinelli talked about the meaning behind PPD’s slogan: “Promoting Civic Virtue, Fostering Civil Debate.” In particular, they talked about the history of the term “civility,” and how it has been abused historically to preserve the status quo in the face of protest. However, as Marinelli explained that “at its best, civility is a commitment to preserving the humanity of your interlocutors… it’s a discursive norm, but it’s also a rhetorical tool, and those things don’t have to be in tension with one another.”
They went on to discuss civlity’s relationship to Marinelli’s work on public argument and protest, specifically the Black Power demonstrations at the 1968 Olympics and more recent demonstrations like Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the national anthem. Rather than see these moments as rejecting civility, Marinelli asserted that their power and provocative nature actually do more to promote civility. As he discussed the disruptive nature of these moments and other public protests, he noted that “it forces people to take a step back and kind of challenge their assumptions, how they’re viewing the world and being in the world. So it can be a good kind of shell shock to kind of make people rethink power dynamics in society.”
Turning to his work with PPD’s undergraduate Agora Fellows, Marinelli talked about guiding students from a range of academic disciplines through different kinds of public discourse, including dialogues, debates, and critical reflections. Marinelli noted that “one of the things that we reflect on is the trade-offs between those different modes of communication. What can you do in a dialog that you can’t accomplish in a debate and vice versa? And so the idea here is not to privilege any one particular mode of discourse, but creating a robust repertoire of discursive techniques and helping people think about those tradeoffs so they can enter those discursive spaces more responsibly.”
Keck closed the conversation by asking about what people can do in their everyday lives to improve public discourse in light of our increasingly fragmented society. Referencing the advice he gives our undergraduate Fellows, Marinelli advised people “to know your audience, know your context. What works in one situation isn’t going to be effective in another, but also work on your listening. That’s so important. Listening is productive. It’s active. It’s not passive. You don’t want to make assumptions and you want to navigate between the critical and the appreciative. And so if your default is just to pick apart every opposing argument, you don’t really give yourself the opportunity for what we call invitational rhetoric, the opportunity for mutual transformation that can emerge.”
Hear the conversation in full on
2021 Year in Review

2021 Year in Review

As we approach the end of the year, we want to thank you for being a part of the Program for Public Discourse in 2021 and share some things the Carolina community made possible in our biggest year yet.

Introducing the Abbey Speaker and Debating Public Policy Series

Enabled by the generosity of Doug and Nancy Abbey ‘74, PPD established our signature Abbey Speaker Series this February. The series brings experts from different disciplines and fields to the Carolina campus four times each year to foster productive dialogue on timely issues across a range of perspectives.
Alongside the Abbey Speaker Series, PPD launched the Debating Public Policy Series, which advances public discourse through modeling robust debate and dialogue about critical issues in contemporary public affairs.
Drawing on the expertise of UNC’s faculty and alumni, this year’s programming included a debate about whether and how to raise the minimum wage and an agonistic dialogue on the contentious issue of voting reform.

Expanding collaboration across campus

Through introducing new initiatives and broadening the scope of our existing programs, PPD worked with more UNC faculty and students than ever before in 2021.
In May of this year, faculty members joined administrative personnel and students for the UNC Faculty Symposium on Deliberative Pedagogy. Attendees shared their ideas and refined their skills for fostering dialogue and debate in the classroom across four panel discussions. Topics included UNC’s Communication Beyond Carolina curriculum, facilitating and evaluating public discourse as an instructor, engaging race and racism in the classroom, and student perspectives on dialogue and debate.
At the start of the Fall semester, thirty instructors from across the Carolina campus joined PPD as Faculty Affiliates, lending their expertise to developing and implementing ongoing and future programming. Three of these affiliates participated in our faculty panel discussion on Democracy and Public Discourse, which introduced our 2021-2022 program theme.
This Fall, over half of the 1,000 attendees that participated in PPD programming were Carolina students. In addition to attending our series events and participating in our undergraduate Agora Fellows program, students joined us for workshops to discuss the challenges and opportunities for public discourse in our community and a variety of department-specific events, including an environmental communication clinic with members of the Department of Public Policy’s Data-Driven EnviroLab.
We thank everyone from the Carolina community and beyond who was part of PPD in 2021. We look forward to meeting everyone who will be a part of it in 2022 as we continue exploring the intersections of Democracy and Public Discourse.
Across the Conversation – an overview of “Voting Reform – an agonistic dialogue”

Across the Conversation – an overview of “Voting Reform – an agonistic dialogue”

Earlier this week, our Debating Public Policy Series returned as part of UNC’s University Research Week. UNC faculty member Jason Roberts and Republican strategist and UNC alumnus Douglas Heye ’94 joined moderator Rick Su of the UNC School of Law for an agonistic dialogue about the contentious issue of voting reform.
Across the conversation, the interlocutors agreed that concerns of voter fraud are overblown and damaging to the electoral process. However, each noted that both Republican and Democratic rhetoric has escalated to the point that any changes to voting laws are interpreted as existential threats, despite states consistently adjusting them following past elections. This process erodes trust in voting – which is dangerous for all involved.
As for how the conversation surrounding voting reform got to this point, contributors discussed how, even though politicians have always attempted to enact reforms that benefit them electorally, the increasingly polarized state of politics means it’s now far easier to increase one’s turnout and decrease your opponent’s than it is to win over new voters.
When discussing ways to increase trust in the electoral process on both sides of the aisle and decrease the negative impact of polarization, Heye and Roberts shared their thoughts on the potential (and challenges) of ranked-choice voting, changing the way we think about districts and the redistricting process, and creating expansive and easily navigated voter ID laws as possible solutions.
Thank you to those who were able to join us for the dialogue, and we are excited for those who get to experience it for the first time here. Please share your thoughts on the discussion with us in the video’s comments section or on Twitter and Facebook.
Across the Conversation – an overview of our inaugural First Friday workshop

Across the Conversation – an overview of our inaugural First Friday workshop

Eighteen Carolina community members, comprised of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, and alumni, joined PPD in the Carolina Union for our inaugural First Friday workshop on September 3rd.
The workshop, led by executive director Kevin Marinelli, saw participants moving from small group conversations to workshop-wide discussions about what they saw as current challenges and opportunities for democratic discourse. Topics progressed from identifying the environments where participants engaged in public discourse to naming challenges to that discourse, deciding who or what is to blame for those challenges and what possible solutions may be, before concluding with considerations of what constitutes robust public discourse.
Environments included the academic (classrooms, publications, conferences) and public (town halls, social media, the workplace), and challenges ranged from the individual (fear, desensitization, and a lack of meaningful engagement) to the structural (algorithmic siloing and the voting process in political primaries).
Participants blamed these challenges on various actors and elements, including governments and regulators failing to act within the public’s interest, the privatization of public discourse by corporations, and the loss of local news.
Proposed solutions included small, personal changes (identifying and understanding your own bias and how it impacts your community) and large, structural ones (bolstering state civic education to raise collective understanding of government, increased transparency from corporations). The conversation also dealt with redefining our idea of censorship to help combat mis- and disinformation.
When asked what robust public discourse looks like after considering these elements, participants noted the need for heterogeneity of inputs and ideas in conversations, vulnerability and authenticity from those involved, and a commitment to continuous communication.
The next First Friday workshop is October 1st, and features Kevin Marinelli and Chris Lundberg leading an interactive workshop on argumentation and debate. Registration is available here.
Announcing the theme for our 2021-2022 programming: Democracy and Public Discourse

Announcing the theme for our 2021-2022 programming: Democracy and Public Discourse

Americans share a mutual frustration with the climate of public discourse today. Indeed, it sometimes seems as though there is nothing to be gained from talking about contentious issues. Public discourse is, however, essential to democracy. Voters, activists, and policy makers cannot make informed decisions unless they are able to listen to different perspectives. Moreover, many of the practices that are essential to democracy—including compromise, negotiation, and persuasion—require dialogue with others. During the 2021-2022 academic year, PPD invites the broader UNC community to participate in an ongoing conversation about how to strengthen American democracy by improving public discourse.
We will kick off this year’s theme with a panel discussion in which UNC faculty draw on research from various disciplines to identify obstacles to effective public discourse and explain how those obstacles might be addressed. Our signature Abbey Speaker Series events will explore particular challenges to constructive public discourse in more detail, such as the political, economic, and cultural divide between urban and rural citizens and the ways in which social media has transformed how citizens communicate with each other.
In the Spring, the Abbey Speaker Series continues our exploration of the theme with discussions about the interplay of science and politics and journalism’s role in maintaining and promoting democratic values.
The PPD Annual Report for the 2020-2021 Academic Year

The PPD Annual Report for the 2020-2021 Academic Year

To the Carolina community and beyond, the UNC Program for Public Discourse (PPD) is proud to report on the success of an exciting year of programming, which we could not have done without your help. With the resources provided by UNC and the generosity of our supporters, combined with the adaptability of our audience and contributors, we were able to connect with hundreds of individuals and continue strengthening our students’ capacities for public discourse, enabling them to serve as better citizens, civic leaders, and stewards of our democracy.
Our Annual Report for this academic year lays out how we built on our existing programming while adding new initiatives to better address the myriad issues affecting our country. It also explores how our audience reaches beyond the Carolina campus and across the political spectrum, broadening and deepening the impact of our efforts to improve public discourse.
In the coming year, we’re expanding on all of these elements to meet the needs of our community. The PPD exists as a resource for anyone interested in cultivating engaged citizenship, and we’re collaborating on a variety of projects and programs with other campus organizations. We are also working to bring even more UNC faculty members from numerous disciplines into the PPD to offer their expertise to each other and our audience.
We thank everyone who was part of the PPD this year. We look forward to meeting everyone who will be part of it during the coming academic year, where we’ll explore the intersection of Democracy and Public Discourse.
PPD serves as resource in student-led civil discourse project pilot

PPD serves as resource in student-led civil discourse project pilot

This Spring, the Program for Public Discourse (PPD) served as a resource for a student-led project designed to foster dialogue between high schoolers in neighboring Orange and Randolph counties.
East Chapel Hill High School (ECHHS) sophomore Clara Brodey started the program out of a desire to connect with students in a nearby county that differed greatly from hers in demographics and political leanings.
“The political and social polarization in the US, which has been especially evident in recent elections, is tearing our nation apart,” Brodey said. “I experience this living in Chapel Hill, a liberal bubble in a red state. Hearing only one side of every issue is disturbing and isolating.”
In January, she sought out help from faculty at ECHHS, Asheboro High School (AHS), and the PPD to develop the format and topics for the program.
“I reached out to the PPD because I knew there must be other people who felt trapped in similar echo chambers, and I wanted to learn how to have meaningful discussions about controversial topics,” Brodey explained. “Civil discourse isn’t just about politics or party lines, but about learning from each other.”
Students from ECHHS and AHS met virtually once a week over the program’s five-week duration to discuss the following topics:
  1. Media Exposure and Echo Chambers
  2. Cancel Culture and Political Correctness
  3. Heroes and Commemoration
  4. Protests and Civil Disobedience
  5. Gender, Identity, and Minors’ Civil Rights
Each discussion began with students sharing their experiences and feelings about each topic. They then worked together to develop a collective knowledge before concluding by sharing their beliefs about each subject.
Jon Lepofsky, a professor in UNC’s Department of Geography and outreach coordinator for the PPD, served as moderator for the discussions.
“While the students would disagree, they did so thoughtfully and respectfully,” Lepofsky said. “Instead of boiling topics down to two simple sides, they practiced their ability to think with nuance, recognize complexity, and really listen to each other. The students regularly noted that they could share their opinions openly, that they thought about the topics in new ways because of something someone else said, and that they were surprised both by what students at their own high school and the other high school said. That was especially great to see, as some of them came into this experience with stereotypes about the students in the other county and assumptions about what they’d think.”
Brodey and Lepofsky hope to repeat the project with additional schools in the coming academic year.
Across the Conversation – an overview of the UNC Faculty Symposium on Deliberative Pedagogy

Across the Conversation – an overview of the UNC Faculty Symposium on Deliberative Pedagogy

Last week, the UNC Program for Public Discourse hosted the UNC Faculty Symposium on Deliberative Pedagogy, which invited faculty, staff, and graduate students from across the Carolina campus to share their ideas and refine their skills for fostering dialogue and debate.
The Symposium was divided into four panels:
  1. Communication Beyond Carolina
  2. Facilitating & Evaluating Public Discourse
  3. Engaging Race and Racism in the Classroom
  4. Student Perspectives on Dialogue and Debate
Across these discussions, participants considered how best to prepare students to engage with difficult questions in constructive ways and present their ideas to varied audiences, and how instructors can show vulnerability and use student-empowering practices to ensure their classrooms generate open and edifying deliberation.
Recordings of these important discussions are now available in a playlist on our YouTube channel. Copies of the panelists’ presentations and an anonymized chat log containing further discussion and links to additional resources are available on the event page.
Read more about each panel below.

Communication Beyond Carolina

Nick Siedentop of the Office of Undergraduate Curricula< provides an overview of how UNC-Chapel Hill is implementing the new IDEAs in Action curriculum, how communication and collaboration are interwoven throughout, and which elements courses must have to qualify as part of the Communication Beyond Carolina component; Dr. Charlotte Boettiger of the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience offers a professor’s perspective on how instructors can build their courses around the Communication Beyond Carolina component, particularly the elements requiring that students learn how to adapt messaging for distinct audiences; and Dr. Erika Wise of the Department of Geography gives examples of how she’s successfully implemented the component into two of her own classes.

Facilitating & Evaluating Public Discourse

Dr. Lloyd Kramer of the Department of History and Carolina Public Humanities argues for the importance of cultivating every student’s ability to facilitate and evaluate public discourse and the role of the humanities in supporting a functional democracy; Dr. Kelly Hogan of the Department of Biology and Office of Instructional Innovation models ways to introduce discursive conversations to students and build a classroom environment that encourages and facilitates participation in varied ways; and Dr. Michael Vazquez of the Department of Philosophy and the Parr Center for Ethics explains how to introduce discursive practices into the classroom, offering a taxonomy of discourse to help professors and students think about different kinds of classroom discussion and providing examples of concrete activities and assignments to incorporate them.

Engaging Race and Racism in the Classroom

Dr. Sibby Anderson-Thompkins of the Office for Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion provides models and strategies she’s utilized in her experiences convening and facilitating conversations about race and racism in the classroom; Dr. Emily Boehm of the Center for Faculty Excellence discusses ways faculty can meet students’ needs when engaging these topics, including acknowledging racist histories in their field and anticipating and designing to overcome areas of stress; and Dr. Travis Albritton of the School of Social Work explains why showing vulnerability as an instructor is necessary for creating transgressive spaces that enable meaningful engagement with race and racism and that it’s essential to ground these topics in historical conversations.

Student Perspectives on Dialogue and Debate

Dr. Kevin Marinelli of the Department of Communication and the Program for Public Discourse interviews several Agora Fellows about their experiences with dialogue and debate both in the classroom and around campus, including what practices they would like professors to implement to improve both; and Dr. Christian Lundberg of the Department of Communication gives an overview of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program and interviews previous participants about what they learned through the program’s debate component, which required them to adopt and argue opposing perspectives on pressing topics to become better communicators.
New speaker series at UNC-Chapel Hill will promote constructive public discourse thanks to $8M investment from Nancy and Doug Abbey

New speaker series at UNC-Chapel Hill will promote constructive public discourse thanks to $8M investment from Nancy and Doug Abbey

A major gift from Nancy, ’74, and Doug Abbey will foster meaningful public discourse about the most pressing issues of the day. Their $8 million investment establishes the Abbey Speaker Series in the Program for Public Discourse in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The inaugural Abbey Speaker Series event will be a virtual panel discussion on Feb. 23, “Defining Racial Justice in the 21st Century: Competing Perspectives and Shared Goals.” Anyone can register to attend the free events offered through the Abbey Speaker Series.
With an $8 million total investment, the Abbeys’ gift creates another opportunity for the University to fortify its commitment to promoting democracy, which is one of eight strategic initiatives in the University’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good. The Program for Public Discourse is one of the College’s major strategic priorities, and the Program’s work is one of the University’s means for accomplishing the worthwhile objective of working constructively across differences in society starting with promoting respect and listening.
“At Carolina, we prepare students to think critically about complex issues and find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.This commitment is more important now than ever,” said UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. “We are grateful to Nancy and Doug for creating more opportunities for our students to practice civic engagement and challenge assumed perspectives. The Program for Public Discourse brings together thought leaders from across political and intellectual divides to debate the critical issues of our day. I believe their gift will help our students thrive as engaged, thoughtful citizens and leaders.”
Four times each year, the Abbey Speaker Series will bring noteworthy scholars to campus — as individuals, in pairs or on panels — to share their perspectives about timely issues while fostering dialogue with others who think differently about the topic.
“We embrace the notion that one comes to a more sophisticated, thoughtful, reasoned and successful resolution to a complex issue if there is more diversity of thought brought to bear on the issue,” said Nancy Abbey. “Imagine if every student experienced a welcoming atmosphere in which to express their educated opinion on a subject, where dialogue, debate and listening are valued.”
“This gift from the Abbeys recognizes a deep commitment to supporting a healthy culture of discourse and reasoning inside and outside the classroom,” said Terry Rhodes, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “We are deeply grateful to the Abbeys for the resounding vote of confidence in the Program for Public Discourse and its commitment to establishing the speaker series as a permanent fixture on campus.”
There have been six speaker series events since the Program for Public Discourse launched in 2019. Each event has generated interest among undergraduates and other Carolina community members — with more than 430 registrants for the most popular event, a virtual discussion about fostering dialogue and friendships across the political aisle, featuring legal scholar and political philosopher Robert P. George and philosopher, political activist, social critic and author Cornel West.
In addition to the speaker series, the Program for Public Discourse offers curricular and other extracurricular opportunities for students to practice and investigate public discourse in a cooperative, experiential learning environment. The program also offers faculty consultations and classroom workshops to instruct faculty on how to teach these deliberative skills, encourage civic engagement and use structured advocacy, rhetoric and dialogue in the classroom.
“The Program for Public Discourse is informed by the belief that robust deliberation is a precondition to democratic culture. Thus, only by working with students on how to engage in robust deliberative practices do we prepare students to act as civic agents and ensure the continuation of American democracy,” said Program for Public Discourse faculty director Sarah Treul, a Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor of Political Science.
“Doug and I believe in public education, and that there is no better place than Carolina to model this behavior and develop a Program for Public Discourse that has the potential to impact global decision- making for the better,” said Nancy Abbey.
The Abbeys’ investment is the second-largest gift to date for any of the College’s four signature initiatives in the Campaign for Carolina. It brings the College to $579 million toward its campaign goal of $750 million. The University-wide campaign launched in October 2017 and supports Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, the University’s comprehensive strategic plan.

Nancy and Doug Abbey

Nancy Abbey, a member of the Chancellor’s Philanthropic Council and the Carolina Women’s Leadership Council, and Doug Abbey, a former Parent’s Advisory Board member, are longtime champions of Carolina. Prior to their most recent gift, they have provided support for faculty, vital unrestricted and emergency support for students, innovative teaching and student support services.
After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, Nancy earned an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. She serves on the Board of the Nantucket Historic Association and on the Advisory Board of Nest, a nonprofit organization building a new handworker economy to increase global workforce inclusivity, improve women’s wellbeing and preserve important cultural traditions around the world. In addition to her current and former roles on numerous advisory boards at Carolina, Nancy has served as a board member at the Grabhorn Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to preserving and perpetuating the use of the last integrated type foundry, bookbinding, and letterpress printing facility in the United States as a living museum and education center.
Doug holds a B.A. from Amherst College and a Master’s in City Planning from UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. He co-founded AMB Property Corporation (merged with Prologis: NYSE) in 1983, now the largest global industrial REIT, and IHP Capital Partners, formed in 1992, a provider of equity to the single-family homebuilding industry. He is a leader in a number of nonprofit organizations related to affordable housing and land use issues.
The Abbeys have three children, Robert, Katherine and Graham ’15.
Announcing the Spring 2021 Abbey Speaker Series

Announcing the Spring 2021 Abbey Speaker Series

This semester, the UNC Program for Public Discourse continues its mission to promote civic virtue and foster lively debate with a pair of virtual panel discussions: Defining Racial Justice in the 21st Century: Competing Perspectives and Shared Goals and The Future of Conservatism.
These events, curated and hosted in partnership with UNC faculty and leaders from fellow civic-minded organizations, are designed to model and interrogate the ways in which robust deliberation and honest and open discourse can help shape our public space.
As you read more about the events and the voices contributing to them below, we hope you’ll consider joining us in the months to come.

Defining Racial Justice in the 21st Century: Competing Perspectives and Shared Goals

On February 23rd at 5:30 pm, the Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies joins us in hosting Defining Racial Justice in the 21st Century: Competing Perspectives and Shared Goals. In the wake of a summer of protests against police brutality, the midst of an ongoing pandemic, and the aftermath of a contentious election, we’re bringing together a panel of Black academic, journalistic, religious, and political leaders to discuss and debate their different definitions of what racial justice looks like – and how it might be achieved – in the twenty-first century.


  • Jamelle Bouie, The New York Times and CBS News


  • Senator Valerie Foushee, North Carolina State Senate
  • Touré Reed, PhD, Illinois State University
  • Jacqueline C. Rivers, PhD, Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies

The Future of Conservatism

On March 23rd at 5:30 pm, in partnership with the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University’s Arete Initiative, we’ll consider The Future of Conservatism. On a host of issues including populism, free trade, and nationalism, conservatives are no longer united. Now, perhaps more than ever, what it means to be a “conservative,” where conservatism is likely headed, and where, ideally, it should direct itself are open to debate. A panel of political thinkers with different views on conservatism will discuss these critical questions.


  • Jed Atkins, PhD, Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University


  • Patrick Deneen, PhD, University of Notre Dame
  • Yuval Levin, PhD, American Enterprise Institute
  • Daniel McCarthy, Intercollegiate Studies Institute
  • Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo, PhD, Texas State University
We look forward to sharing these discussions with the broader UNC community and the general public. As the semester progresses, we’ll provide further updates about these events, our developing programs for UNC students and faculty, and how we plan to explore next year’s initiative: Public Discourse and Democratic Norms.

Reflecting on 2020, Looking to 2021

With 2020 ending, we want to thank everyone who supported the UNC Program for Public Discourse (PPD)’s ongoing mission to promote civic virtue and foster civil debate.
This year, we welcomed new leadership and found new ways to connect and share our work with the world.
The PPD brought together voices from across disciplines, institutions, and political ideologies. We discussed meritocracy’s role in education, how we should tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, what it takes to establish dialogue across the political aisle, how to best secure free speech on college and university campuses, and what public discourse will look like post-election.
Working alongside numerous departments and schools within the university, we connected to hundreds of Carolina students, faculty, and staff. And just as importantly, our principles found purchase with scores of passionate individuals beyond our virtual campus.
As we transition into a new semester and a new year full of promise and uncertainty, we will continue our commitment to cultivating robust public discourse around a variety of challenging topics.
We’re grateful for everyone who was a part of the PPD in 2020. We look forward to meeting everyone who will be a part of it in 2021.
Across the Conversation – an overview of “Public Discourse Post-Election: Is Dialogue Possible?”

Across the Conversation – an overview of “Public Discourse Post-Election: Is Dialogue Possible?”

Last week, PPD brought together political operatives and UNC faculty to discuss the 2020 elections’ impact on the shape of civic life. Below, you’ll find excerpts from these conversations that explore the past, present, and future of political polarization, its role in society, and the ways we can address it in the coming years.

A Frontline Perspective

“Somehow, there’s got to be a reconciliation of sorts between the media, the public, and the political domain.” – Brett O’Donnell, O’Donnell & Associates, Ltd.
For the first part of the event, PPD met with Democratic and Republican operatives for a discussion that used the 2020 elections as a lens through which to view the ways Americans talk about politics at all levels.

From across the conversation:

When talking about the media’s role in the polarization process, Republican operative Brett O’Donnell stated, “The average person at home, their life does not revolve around politics… And they’re looking for some objectivity, someplace where they can go to get news and not be preached at by the news.” As a result of this, “local news viewership has gone up because people feel more comfortable getting their news there. They feel like they’re not in the middle of politics all day long.”
On bringing more underrepresented communities into politics and campaigns, Democratic operative B.J. Rudell suggested, “Talk less, listen more,” and described a realization he had after leaving a position at Duke to become a field organizer this past election: “These fights had been happening long before I quit my job and I had to remain humble throughout… For some people, it’s a lifelong struggle.” O’Donnell also pointed out the positive representation gains from this election, with record voter turnout on both sides of the aisle and a coming Congress that contains a record number of women in the House of Representatives.
In response to a student’s question about “post-truth politics,” Rudell confessed, “I think it’s more about… are we in a post-people-caring-about-truth era… I think we have reached a point now where being part of a team, or a tribe, is more important than anything.”
As for how these facts will shape the next four years, Rudell cautioned, “I’m very realistic that the next two years are going to be muddy and troubling… This is going to be stake your ground, and stake your ground for the purpose of running a two-year campaign to win in 2022.”
O’Donnell agreed, noting, “I would’ve thought a global pandemic could’ve brought us together. It doesn’t appear that’s going to be the case… Something has to jolt our country out of the current, really deeply partisan divide in which we find ourselves.”
As for what people can do about it right now, O’Donnell urged, “If you want to change the politics, become a part of the change, right? The best way to change how politics are done is to go volunteer on a political campaign and work on a political campaign and advocate for the kind of political change you’d like to see.”

An Academic Perspective

“The history of the country is more about the story of polarization than it is about depolarization.” – Dr. Marc Hetherington, Department of Political Science.
For the second part of the event, PPD brought together four UNC faculty members to discuss the intersecting forces that influence how and whether partisans can have productive conversations in a polarized political climate.

From across the conversation:

“Sometimes I ask myself: when have we ever not been politically and culturally divided in this country, or polarized in this country?” Dr. Travis Albritton from the School of Social Work offered early on, clarifying, “Especially… about issues as it relates to people of color and the history of people of color in this country.” He continued that, “For many folk, they feel as though their life really depends on what is happening and what is going on around them. And they do see the other side… as a danger to their very existence, to their health, to their safety.”
When discussing the current state of political polarization, Dr. Marc Hetherington from the Department of Political Science described the cultural transition from the muted political and party polarization that existed before the Civil Rights Movement: “Polarization has played a really positive role in the country. The polarization, I think, ends up resulting from the backlash against the extension of more equality in all of these different areas. And that’s something that’s really important for us to keep in mind.”
As panelists considered ways to make progress amidst polarization, Dr. Christian Lundberg of the Department of Communication put forward one possible solution: “Civility. Not civility in the sense of politeness, not civility in the sense of rules or norms, but the original Roman distinction between civil and non-civil speech is that civil speech was speech that was undertaken for the good of the whole community, as opposed to one’s own good.”
As for the points upon which individuals cannot agree, Dr. Susan Bickford of the Department of Political Science proposed that, while “it wouldn’t make sense in a political setting for me to put who I am aside… what we share is that argument.” She then explained, “Sometimes, because some interests are fundamentally conflicting even if we’re part of a whole, we’re not going to be able to merge or to come to an agreement, but we can still come to a better understanding of what the conflict between us is. Sometimes, even that is a political achievement.”

Opportunities for Classroom Dialogue in the Wake of the Election

The upcoming election has faculty members concerned about how its results might affect their students and likewise impact classroom engagement in its wake. In particular, there is the question of whether or not to address the election in class the next day, and, if so, how to do so effectively. As educators, we are constantly navigating the terrain between public life and course content, often experimenting with how to intertwine the two most responsibly. Obviously, certain public issues lend themselves more easily to certain classes than others. As a professor of rhetoric, my course is clearly enriched by engaging public discourse. Still, I believe all courses across a liberal arts education find important links to public life, and many students appreciate it when their instructors attempt to identify those links in class discussion. Inevitably, instructors will face criticism for whichever decision they make, and the choice is entirely theirs. Many also already utilize sound strategies for times such as this and need no assistance. Yet for those interested in engaging the election in its wake but unsure of how to proceed, I am happy to share strategies that work for me.
First, I would simply remind you that you are likely facing a mixed audience. Thus, appearing overly ecstatic or upset with the results will probably alienate certain students, and it will not do much to challenge favorable students either. That said, your students likely share important concerns and core values upon which you can utilize to drive discussion. For example, all students likely share a desire for more substantial debate, less polarization, more political cooperation, and greater access to credible information. Likewise, asking students to assess these challenges may facilitate a surprising amount of non-partisan dialogue. Second, it is likely possible to do so from within the framework of your specific discipline. For example, any discipline will likely find significant implications for its field within the policy platforms of either candidate or party. Thus, one might also ask their students how the election results could potentially shape the landscape of their field in upcoming years, drawing specifically on language and policy proposals within the various local, statewide and national campaigns. By asking open and non-value-laden questions such as these, instructors may find greater success in facilitating robust dialogue without it devolving into partisan bickering.
My spiel at times such as this looks something like the following: Good morning. I know emotions are likely running high today in the wake of a heated election. Obviously, some of you are happy with the results, and others displeased. And I’m sure that is putting it mildly for some of you. Still, such an event offers a unique opportunity to reflect on our political institutions and democratic processes and the overall quality of our public discourse. It also prompts important discussion concerning the state of our discipline in particular. So, rather than rehash the political debates we have been engaging ferociously over the past six months or longer, I thought, for the moment, we could engage some deeper questions and concerns about the political process, asking where we are as a nation, a state, and a field of inquiry, along with how we can move forward productively.
One should also remember that students may still need more time to process the election before they are ready to discuss such issues in a civil and productive way. And that is perfectly okay as well. Nevertheless, students may gain reassurance knowing that their instructor appreciates what is happening beyond the classroom and is willing to engage it with their students in a meaningful way.
Thanks for your time, and I am happy to continue the conversation further to help strategize opportunities to incorporate public discourse into the classroom responsibly and effectively. And I always appreciate learning from colleagues about strategies that work for them, so please feel free to send them my way!

Treul, Marinelli to lead Program for Public Discourse

Two key leadership appointments have been made in the College of Arts & Sciences’ Program for Public Discourse, a program launched in 2019 to bring together UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and students to build a stronger community by offering every student the opportunity to become a more informed, engaged and skilled citizen.
Sarah Treul, a Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor of Political Science at Carolina, will become faculty director of the program, and Kevin Marinelli, who teaches rhetoric at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will serve as executive director.
The appointments were made by Terry Rhodes, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Treul was selected for the leadership position from among faculty already participating in the program, whose members span seven departments in the College, Kenan-Flagler Business School and the Law School. Marinelli was identified in a formal search by an interdisciplinary search committee with members from several academic departments. Both positions are effective July 1.
“Dr. Treul and Dr. Marinelli will bring strengths to this program from their respective backgrounds in political science and rhetoric,” said Rhodes. “The search for knowledge is most robust when deliberation occurs and diverse ideas are discussed intelligently and constructively by the students and faculty. We look forward to increased programming on topics of civic engagement and to the development of courses that support our new IDEAs in Action curriculum, which will launch next year.”
As faculty director of the Program for Public Discourse, Treul will define the strategic priorities and objectives of the program, working in coordination with the College of Arts & Sciences Dean’s Office, relevant department chairs and program faculty. She will appoint all joint faculty, advisory board members, fellows and visiting scholars and will also approve all teaching assignments associated with the program. She will also supervise the executive director position and approve all budgets and programming.
Treul has been on the Carolina faculty since 2009. Her research interests are American political institutions, specifically congressional primary elections and decision-making in the U.S. Senate. The faculty director position is a three-year appointment.
“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to lead this program,” said Treul. “My experience in the classroom shows me that Carolina students are hungry for tools that will make them effective and persuasive communicators, and they have shown themselves to be eager to explore and consider all sides of multifaceted issues.”
As executive director, Marinelli will be responsible for managing programming in the Program for Public Discourse. This includes mentoring the Polis Fellows, undergraduates who produce a periodical, Polis, that debates contemporary topics of wide interest; recruiting speakers for campus events; and working with the Center for Faculty Excellence and other campus entities to support civic engagement and the wider use of structured advocacy, rhetoric and debate in the classroom.
Marinelli is a rhetorical scholar who previously served as director of the Speaking Center at Davidson College for three years before joining MIT in 2019. He has also taught at Young Harris College, the University of Georgia and San Jose State University. He holds a holds a Ph.D. in speech-communication from the University of Georgia and an M.A. in the same subject from San Jose State. He holds bachelor’s degrees in both communication studies and political science from the College of Charleston.
“I have devoted my career to empowering students to explore challenging topics through rigorous and informed deliberation,” said Marinelli. “I am excited by the opportunity to work with Sarah to develop and build out this new program at UNC.”
The executive director position is a non-tenure-track position. Marinelli will also hold a teaching assistant professor title and teach courses in the department of communication.
The Program for Public Discourse seeks to build a culture of robust debate and civic engagement at Carolina while upholding the core principles of academic freedom of expression and academic inquiry. The program supports the development or enhancement of courses and campus life experiences that employ techniques, practices and processes for discussion, deliberation and debate. The program sponsored several key events in the 2019-20 academic year, including Thinking for Yourself: When Values Diverge from Politics; Impeachment: Then and Now, and Meritocracy in Higher Education.