The issues that command our nation's attention - economic recovery, the war in Afghanistan, immigration and health care reform - are critically important to all of us, so it's no surprise that they have elicited passionate debate and continue to dominate daily news cycles.
However, the decline in the civil tenor of our national discourse is troubling, and the long-term impact on our ability to remain a strong and resilient democracy might rest more on how we debate than on how these debates are resolved.
Many powerful influences, from special interest groups to extremists in the media, have helped fuel a contentious and often divisive environment. Talk radio, cable TV programming and mainstream news programs have moved from delivering information toward argument, featuring conversation whose sole interest is advancing the writer's or broadcaster's own agenda and whipping up the support of a political base.
Hecklers financed by special interests have disrupted town halls and forums across the country, and universities are not immune to instances of disruptive behavior, even in the classroom.
As the state's flagship university with campuses across the state, the University of South Carolina wants to make a difference by engaging our students and our citizens on this important topic. Therefore, I am committing our eight campuses to an initiative that seeks to elevate the tenor of public discourse in our state by educating our students and involving our citizens in this endeavor.
This initiative reflects the very foundation on which our university was founded in 1801. We were created to bring harmony and unity to the state and ameliorate the divisiveness that existed then between the Lowcountry and the Upstate. Our plans also exemplify our commitment to community engagement, for which we have been recognized by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
I have created a group of university and community representatives to recommend how reasoned and civil debate can become the norm for resolving some of society's most polarizing issues. We will begin by examining how we can teach our own students to practice civil discourse. We will aim to elevate the topic in the curriculum, especially in first-year classes such as our nationally recognized University 101 course. We will review our Carolinian Creed, which obligates each member of our community to a code of civil behavior, and consider amending it with a new tenet on civil discourse.
When we invite speakers whose views and topics might ignite debate, we will encourage discussion with a goal of instilling an appreciation for the importance of fair-mindedness, personal responsibility and respect for differing opinions.
At such occasions, students and audiences always will be strongly encouraged to observe common standards of decorum and intellectual discussion, and to display a respectful tenor. We also will consider appropriate steps to be taken when members of our community do not respect these standards.
My proposal is not a response to any one event. It is a recognition that civil discourse must be restored to the lives we live together. If we dig in our heels, close our minds and clench our fists, we cannot be an enlightened society. If we comport ourselves in that way, then compromise - a fundamental tenet of democracy that usually is reached through debate and discussion - will be jeopardized further.
The people of this nation deserve better. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "We must become the change we want to see in the world." That change can take on new life at universities, and we will work hard to have that refreshed environment begin at the University of South Carolina