MACON – Mercer University is one of 40 institutions across the country – and the only in Georgia – to receive an award from Campus Compact's Fund for Positive Engagement, designed to bridge divides on campuses and in communities.
Campus Compact, a Boston-based nonprofit organization working to advance the public purposes of higher education, created the Fund for Positive Engagement as a direct response to the divisive and destructive climate in the U.S. that took shape during the 2016 campaign and has continued in its aftermath. The purpose of the fund is to catalyze experiments in bridging divisions among people and groups in communities across the country.
“We wanted to create an incentive for colleges and universities to come up with creative responses to the challenges they are seeing,” said Andrew Seligsohn, president of Campus Compact. “We have been hearing from our member colleges and universities that students and community members cannot hold conversations with people with differing political views. Immigrant and Muslim students are afraid to express their views. Many community members see universities as completely separate universes with different values. We invited our members to propose steps to break through those divides, and we are excited by the proposals that came back.”
The selection process was highly competitive, as Campus Compact received nearly 300 submissions. Two-thirds of the reviewers were students in Campus Compact's Newman Civic Fellows program. Proposals were judged based on the strength of the idea, its practicality and the degree to which it will be possible to measure success, among other criteria.
Mercer will use the funding to establish a deliberative dialogue initiative, The SOUL (Seeking Openness, Understanding, and Learning) Project, on campus to equip students, faculty and staff with the tools to facilitate intentional discourse on difficult topics.
This fall, the University will conduct training on deliberative dialogue facilitation and work with undergraduates to host a deliberative dialogue event on campus on a topic of the students' choosing.
In the spring, trained undergrads will conduct a similar training for high school students at nearby Mount de Sales Academy and work with the high-schoolers to host a deliberative dialogue event for their peers.
Hannah Vann, associate director of Mercer's Research That Reaches Out Office, and Dr. Eimad Houry, professor and chair of international and global studies, will serve as co-directors for The SOUL Project.
“We will be conducting research on the effects of deliberative dialogue training on our students as well as developing a toolkit to help other educational institutions and community organizations implement similar programs in their communities,” said Vann. “Our goal is to equip our Mercer and Macon community with the tools to engage with others in respectful, productive dialogue and to work with students and faculty to carry on this initiative so that The SOUL Project can be sustained in the years to come.”
“Division is endemic to any healthy democracy, but a divided society where groups are unable or unwilling to talk or listen to each other will certainly be detrimental to our identity as an inclusive nation,” added Dr. Houry. “The SOUL Project uses the deliberative dialog approach to generate productive conversations that culminate in some collective action aimed at dealing with the underlying issues. This is especially important in a university setting where ideas are not just heard, but are also carefully and critically considered.”
Teri McMurtry-Chubb, professor of law at Mercer Law School, will lead training for the project.
“Given the climate in the country and on college campuses nationwide around issues of difference, it is imperative that students at all educational levels be instructed on how to have deliberative, rational, fact-based discussions on these issues,” said McMurtry-Chubb. “Equipping students with the tools for civil discourse can be transformative to the culture of any institution, and aid in making institutions more equitable and inclusive.”
Additionally, Betsy Holcomb, theology teacher at Mount de Sales, will serve as a partner on The SOUL Project.
“Being part of this grant helps us promote the values of the Sisters of Mercy, the foundresses of our school,” said Holcomb. “Many of our students are eager to engage in meaningful conversations with each other about important topics such as race and social injustices. This training will enable more of these conversations to happen. Furthermore, we are eager to put our students in contact with older role models at Mercer. Through this training, we hope to continue to deepen the partnership between Mercer and Mount de Sales.”
For more information and a full list of recipients, visit compact.org/fund-positive-engagement.
About Campus Compact
Campus Compact is a coalition of 1,000-plus colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education. As the largest national organization dedicated to this mission, Campus Compact is a leader in building community engagement into campus and academic life. For more information, visit www.compact.org.