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Widener's new Common Ground Initiative raises the bar on respectful, civil discourse.

Hundreds of years ago, our nation’s leaders gathered in Philadelphia to debate and construct a more perfect union. This semester, Widener students traveled to that same historic neighborhood to explore the principles of active citizenship and civil discourse. As the university made a public display of its commitment to these ideals, Widener students across varied majors were at the heart of the exercise in democracy.

Part of a larger Common Ground Initiative, the signature event “The First Amendment: Finding Common Ground in a Polarized World” brought together students, faculty, alumni, and staff at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for a program that explored the intersection of free speech and civil discourse. It featured a panel discussion and breakout sessions where all participants could share their thoughts as specially trained student volunteers guided the conversations.

At Widener, there is a commitment to seeking common ground through respect, mutual understanding and unity. It represents the university’s culture, where people value the opportunity to share different thoughts and experiences.

“This is a model for the nation. You are fortunate to be at this university,” National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen said of Widener’s proactive effort. “This is central to the future of democracy.”

Rosen moderated a panel discussion with Widener President Dr. Julie E. Wollman and Delaware Law School Dean Rodney A. Smolla, a nationally recognized constitutional scholar. Wollman spoke about her commitment to common ground and the model Widener has created while Smolla explained legal theories of free speech and shaped modern-day questions with historical perspectives.

Their talk was followed by breakout sessions where students became the event’s leaders, guiding participants through personal, small-group discussions from tables on a museum overlook. Next to them, soaring glass windows provided a flawless view of Independence Hall, the birthplace of the Constitution.

“This made me feel amazing,” said junior Husam Shabazz, an international relations major and volunteer group facilitator. “I think Widener doing this as a university is a big step for political understanding.”

Rosen lauded Widener and Wollman for the vision represented by the initiative – something he said the country needs in these turbulent times. The event’s location at the constitution center, and Rosen’s enthusiastic support, raised the level of conversation.

“Events like this make me feel very proud to be a part of Widener University,” sophomore political science major Hunter Romach said. He facilitated pre-event table talk exercises, and found himself seated across from both Wollman and Widener Provost Dr. Dale Scalise-Smith, for discussions about common ground. “It was an absolute honor to hear both of them open up to me.”

While the common ground event kicks off a university initiative that positions Widener as a national leader, the driving force behind it is rooted in student transformation. “Widener graduates are global leaders with the skills and confidence to initiate positive change in our world,” Wollman said. “The culture we are fostering through common ground is part of that foundation for success.”

Access our YouTube channel to see the full panel discussion.