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While some level of disagreement is inherent in complex societies, nations around the world appear to be experiencing heightened levels of polarization and divisiveness. As politics comes to resemble a competitive struggle for power, we have also seen widespread declines in trust and confidence in institutions.

As institutions charged with educating the next generation of global leaders, colleges and universities have welcomed attention to civic engagement. However, the most common approaches tend to offer expert knowledge and technical assistance, while avoiding controversial issues or problems of disagreement.

The Talloires Network in partnership with the Kettering Foundation organized a series of exchanges (2016-2018) aimed at addressing these challenges. We aimed to learn more about the most innovative, university-led public dialogue and deliberation efforts around the world, while deepening these efforts through experimentation with Kettering’s research on deliberative concepts.

This excerpt from our final report shares the overall findings from this multi-year collaboration known as “Deliberative Civic Engagement” and is organized by a set of overarching research questions, negotiated by the Network and the Foundation.

They are:

  • What controversial issues and wicked problems are common concern to students and communities around the world?
  • How do universities in different contexts around the world understand the dialogue and deliberation as an approach to civic engagement?
  • How universities around the world are transforming and can transform their curriculum, both undergraduate and graduate, to educate student capabilities for public dialogue and deliberation?
  • How student participation in dialogue and deliberation might influence ideas they have about themselves? About local issues? There inclination and the ability to take public action?

Wicked Problems

Throughout their week together each year (2016-2018) in Dayton, Ohio, DCE workshop participants discussed approaches to “deliberative civic engagement” and the controversial issues and wicked problems it might address. The engaged scholars (university faculty, staff, students, and community partners) who were invited to participate shared the belief that universities ought play a role in the functioning of civil society; each had an interest preparing students to become active citizens, contributing to the betterment of the local communities, and producing relevant knowledge to solve societal problems. Each DCE participant was selected, in part, for their leadership role in a university civic engagement program intended to challenge the notion of an “ivory tower.”

The work of these engaged scholars is not separate from reality. The controversial issues and wicked problems of common concern identified by these engaged scholars and their communities included: xenophobia, poverty,violence, student protests, black student alienation, illegal mining, increased polarization, increased hopelessness and despair, influx of immigrants, loss of trust in government and institutions, restrictions on freedom of speech, inequality, loss of faith in fair elections, corruption, and distrust of the media. To address such challenges, each has created spaces and methods for designing and managing activities among people who are affected by wicked problems to foster a sense of understanding, and, in some instances, a common call to action. Many participants readily acknowledgedthat wicked problems are inextricably intertwined, and each a symptom of another (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Nonetheless, they viewed higher education institutions as important players in a larger system and a setting where “the new citizenship” gets constructed (Habib, 2014).

Generally speaking, DCE participants recognized the potential of universities to support dialogue and deliberation among citizens. As relatively stable institutions theoretically unfettered by any political agenda, they felt that universities are well-positioned to build community capacity for deliberation by convening deliberative forums, and by providing people with “passionate neutrality” to facilitate the deliberative process (Carcasson 2013). In most cases, however, their civic engagement activities were not understood or presented as deliberative processes per se. Instead, they characterize university civic engagement in terms service-learning, volunteerism, and community-based research. On the one hand, we found that some university civic engagement programs and initiatives have challenged the hierarchical and decidedly undemocratic internal structure of the university in ways that engage faculty and students with wicked problems in communities where they are located. On the other hand, these university civic engagement programs tend to avoid problems of disagreement among participants.

Deliberative Civic Engagement

We also discovered that there is significant variation with respect to how universities in different contexts around the world understand the dialogue and deliberation as an approach to civic engagement. The term “deliberation” is not commonplace, nor is it typically the focal point of an engagement effort. Rather, such concepts and methods are embedded in partnerships and understood implicitly.

In the beginning (DCE 2016, consisting of 12 university faculty, staff and students hailing from 9 countries – Mexico, Scotland, Chile, South Africa, Hong Kong, Canada, Israel, United States, Brazil), participants noted that deliberative civic engagement is similar to other approaches used by leaders and educators that may go by different names such as “collaborative problem-solving.” A number of participants saw the essence of deliberative civic engagement as deconstructing the artificial wall between the university and the community. Their examples included: “working with, not for, the community”; “to be in and of the community”; “bringing community members who don’t have access to decision-making bodies to the table”; “involving citizens in identifying problems”; and having “power with, not power over.” Participants also recognized that engaging communities through deliberation is, in some ways, a wicked problem itself.

Idit Manosevitch, with the Netanya Academic College in Israel, cautioned there is no such thing as “one community” or a proper relationship between university and community — deliberation is necessary to determine how this relationship will unfold. Carol Ma, who was representing Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, stressed that trust between university and community members is an essential prerequisite to a constructive relationship, and trust-building takes effort and time. By the end of the first workshop, the sentiments of the group were effectively captured by Ronald Sistek, of the Universidad Austral de Chile, who defined deliberative civic engagement as: “thriving through tension and collaboration.” Sistek also highlighted that, paradoxically, those concerned with fostering deliberative civic engagement in their communities and universities must start with themselves. An attitudinal shift towards “embracing complexity and diversity” and “legitimating the other” must take place within the individual before group deliberation may be useful.

In 2017, the DCE groupbegan working to identify issues of concern and to conceptualize individual experiments to be carried out on their individual campuses. They were also exposed again to Kettering’s approach to deliberation, which takes time to appreciate and understand. To bring the group along, the workshop mentees emphasized the ways in which deliberation differs from collaborative problem-solving. For example, deliberation does not necessarily lead to action; however, it can lead to creativity, increased awareness, and the ability to talk and listen across differences. Throughout the week, participants came to understand deliberation as a process of managing conflicts and tensions associated with divisive issues (wicked problems); that deliberation exists in a continuum between avoiding conflict (unitary positioning) and embracing conflict (adversarial positioning). It is a civil conversation where power is negotiated, and the range of polarization is reduced.

By 2018, the group learned that not all problems are suited for deliberation, and there needs to be an understanding that there is a problem even if it does not yet have a name. They practiced the art of naming and framing, and understood the importance of using public terms and staying neutral (e.g. “How do we protect our girls from harmful practices?” instead of “female mutilation”).

Together, we discussed and explored examples of the key steps for successful deliberation: (1) identifying a wicked problem (2) asking: what should we do? (3) conducting background research (4) gathering public concerns, (4) grouping the like concerns, identifying the disagreement/tension among the concerns, and unpacking values (5) describing the approaches/options – grouping all possible actions and tradeoffs. Though we did not test the framework with the public, we reviewed the ground rules for a National Issues Forum, whichseveral participants later applied in their campus experiments (e.g., everyone is an expert; consider all the options fairly; moderators lead the conversation relying on research materials; moderators work to surface values and tensions; discuss the issues with an open mind). Some poignant comments from the final workshop include:

  • “Research is detached from problems in society and public is demanding more from universities that receive public money. Research and scientific facts are under attack. Some community leaders do not want our research.”
  • “Knowledge is something that is co-constructed (not something that someone has). It is fundamentally relational, implies practice. If we take the practice of deliberation into the community, and you have different modes of knowing, then deliberation itself will evolve.”
  • “Problems are not technical. They are political. On some issues, people have very strong opinions… there are climate deniers, for example. Data will not work. Sometimes there are only two patterns: adversarial OR avoidance.”
  • “Giving voice to and acknowledging people who are ‘irrational’ is very threatening to the academy; such processes are needed to validate people and open up the conversation.
  • Deliberation can help with the listening – it provides structured listening. This is vital because contemporary culture emphasizes voicing above listening. Deliberation might help people see the value of listening.”

Experiments in Deliberative Civic Engagement

Deliberative pedagogy is a democratic educational process and a way of thinking that encourages students to encounter and consider multiple perspectives, weigh tradeoffs and tensions, and move toward action through informed judgment. It is simultaneously a way of teaching that is itself deliberative and a process for developing the skills, behaviors, and values that support deliberative practice.

Excerpt from T. Shaffer, J., Longo, N. V., Manosevitch, I., & Thomas, M. S. (Eds.)

Despite intensive outreach efforts to network members over a period of several years, we did not find many examples a deliberative pedagogy underway. At the same time, many member universities are actively involved in transforming their curriculum to prepare an ethical and engage citizens. Interestingly, workshop participants rather quickly began to value the practice of deliberation and took a sincere interest in introducing deliberation in the classroom setting (University of Nairobi, Kenya; Yezreel Valley College, Israel; Walter Sisulu University, South Africa; Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong).

Lessons Learned

It is not necessary to transform the curriculum in order to expose students to deliberation. Introducing methods of deliberation into existing courses can be very effective as demonstrated by these experiments.

Student feedback on campus experiments was generally very positive. Participating in structured conversation on a difficult issue left some students feeling they had greater agency in understanding and solving problems. Additionally, students enjoyed thinking through the complexity of the issues from multiple perspectives and he gained new insights from their peers. Though difficult and messy, these conversations released some of the unspoken tensions in the room. Faculty played a major role in facilitating the experiments to ensure student stayed focused on the issues and the discussion lead to greater understanding rather than action. Student feedback suggests that opportunities for deliberations in these societies are rare, yes vital and welcome. Generally, students enjoyed exploring important issues, learning from their peers, and considering alternative perspectives.

The faculty who ran these experiments have created spaces for students from diverse backgrounds and experiences to practice democratic principles by discussing the multiple dimensions of a relevant social issue. They ensured that the student participants were central to the process of issue identification as well as naming and framing. Once the issue was chosen for discussion, the group worked together to identify the tension underlying the issue as well as the values associated with the tension. (Issue = social media and social cohesion. Tension = On the one hand, it allows social connections, and on the other it may produce negative effects on our perceptions of ourselves and others, and our capacities to live a healthy life.) In short, they approached deliberation as a structured discussion for the purpose of understanding the complexities of a contested issue.

Lessons learned from DCE experiments in deliberative pedagogy include: enhancing student engagement by involving students in the identification of the issue and development of options; identifying areas of friction by asking students to write about the issue before discussing the issue in a group setting; managing group dynamics by setting basic ground rules for speaking with one another; structuring the conversation by relying on a facilitator who keeps the group focused on the values underlying each option; and introducing students to principles of deliberation.

 

Closing Remarks

Universities occupy a conflicted space in the popular imagination. Universities conjure competing images of elitism and social mobility; ivory tower isolationism and community uplift; places of exclusion and places where diverse people interact and thrive. From one angle, elitist universities perpetuate systems where voices are systematically disenfranchised. Despite the collective brainpower within university walls, they are often out of touch with the knowledge, experience and assets of their surrounding communities.

However, we know that universities have an opportunity — and, perhaps, an obligation — to create an environment for communities to discuss their differences and devise their own solutions. Universities can create, nurture, and protect environments where ideas can be discussed between people of different beliefs and backgrounds. Such environments may play a vital role in advancing tolerance of difference and understanding between people with divergent values and ideologies. Campus and community environments represent important opportunities to discover self-rule by working through difficult questions with community members, forming networks, and using human and other resources to address local problems (Mathews 2014).

In a variety of ways, of the Deliberative Civic Engagement project was a success. Several faculty from universities in different parts of the world have learned about and applied deliberation in their classrooms. As a result, hundreds of students have participated in deliberative discussions and benefited from the experience. As societal polarization continues to increase in countries around the world, the need for deliberation grows. The world needs more activities that designed to bring people together, to talk, to listen, to understand one another. At the heart of deliberative practice, we rebuild public trust and democratic institutions. Universities hold tremendous potential with regard to achieving this proposition.

 

Appendix 

DCE2016 was a group of 12 university faculty, staff and students from 9 countries (United States, Scotland, Mexico, South Africa, Canada, Israel, Brazil, Chile, Hong Kong). They convened in Dayton, Ohio in July 2016.

  • Hlekani Kabiti, Walter Sisulu University
  • Margaret Fraser, Glasgow University, Scotland
  • Shauna Sylvester, Simon Fraser University, Canada
  • Gabriela Gonzalez, Universidad Austral de Chile, Chile
  • Ernesto Benavides Ornelas, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico
  • Carol Ma,Lingnan University, Hong Kong
  • Helen Martin,Glasgow University, Scotland
  • Ronald Sistek, University of Chile, Chile

DCE2017 was a group of 11 university faculty, staff and students from 8 countries (United States, Egypt, South Africa, Canada, Israel, Brazil, Kenya, Ghana). They convened in Dayton, Ohio in July 2017.

  • Hlekani Muchazotida Kabiti, Walter Sisulu University
  • Martin Ocholi, University of Nairobi, Kenya
  • Paul Yeboah, University of Mines and Technology, Ghana
  • Dassi Postan-Aizik, University of Haifa, Israel
  • Sebastian Merz, Simon Fraser University, Canada
  • Zainab Akef, American University in Cairo, Egypt

The group mentors remained the same (Martin Carcasson, Colorado State University in United States; Telma Jimenez, State University of Londrina, in Brazil; Idit Manosevitch, Netanya Academic College, in Israel).

DCE2018 was a group of 8 university faculty, staff and students from 7 countries (United States, Hong Kong, South Africa, Brazil, Kenya, Israel, Ghana). They convened in Dayton, Ohio in July 2018.

  • Hlekani Muchazotida Kabiti, Walter Sisulu University
  • Martin Ocholi, University of Nairobi, Kenya
  • Paul Yeboah, University of Mines and Technology, Ghana
  • Dassi Postan-Aizik, University of Haifa, Israel
  • Stan Wong, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong
  • Janice McMillan, University of Cape Town, South Africa

The DCE2018 mentor was Telma Jimenez, State University of Londrina, in Brazil.

About the DCE Mentors

  • Idit Manosevitchhas been working with the Kettering Foundation for 10 years.She is in communications atNetanya Academic College in Israel where she has developed a program that teaches students deliberative theory and practice.She is working with the Prime Minister’s Office to help citizens and others understand the value of deliberation and to develop a “deliberative mindset,” which she sees as a way of talking together for the purpose of solving problems collectively
  • Telma Jimenezhas been associated with the Kettering Foundation for 20 years. She is currently working in the State University of Londrina in Brazil. She has focused on the development of student-centered reflective pedagogy. Now she is in the International Relations Office and interested in institutional change. There are many questions around the issue of internationalization that she aims to explore with the community
  • Martin Carcassonis a Communications Professor at Colorado State University in the United States. The Center for Public Deliberation is a major leader in the dialogue and deliberation scene, and has helped Kettering introduce deliberation to faculty across the United States. Martin sees the Center as an “impartial resource” helping to raise quality of public arguments. The approach begins with acknowledging that the local community has power to address “wicked problems,” which involve underlying values that do not fit together well. The Center focuses on creating a culture of deliberation to address societal issues.

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