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      President Wollman Shares Model for Civil Dialogue at South by Southwest Education Conference

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      South by Southwest Education

      President Julie E. Wollman and National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen talk about free speech and civil dialogue on college campuses at South by Southwest Education Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas.

      President Julie E. Wollman shared Widener University's Common Ground Initiative with leading innovators and educators from around the world at the South by Southwest Education Conference and Festival (SXSW EDU) in Austin, Texas.

      As part of the four-day conference in early March, Wollman and National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen presented a featured session titled "Free Speech and Civil Dialogue Online and On Campus."

      In a lively discussion, Wollman and Rosen explored the future of free expression and strategies for facilitating civil dialogue in campus settings and online. A central theme in the talk was Widener's Common Ground Initiative, which has grown to be a national model for challenging the polarization plaguing society and valuing the opportunity to learn from a diversity of perspectives.

      "We started the Common Ground Initiative because I recognized what was happening on college campuses around the nation. People were angry and were not listening to each other," Wollman said during the session. "We felt we could do something different – and frankly better – by creating a model for colleges and universities nationally to get ahead of the issues and spend the time teaching students, faculty and staff to really listen to each other and bring together people with different perspectives."

      Wollman launched the Common Ground Initiative in the fall 2017 semester. It began with a Nov. 14 event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia that explored the intersection between free speech and civil discourse in modern America. The event drew more than 200 members of the Widener community and involved an hour-long panel discussion featuring Wollman, Rosen and Delaware Law School Dean Rodney Smolla.

      Following the panel, Widener students led breakout discussions that allowed audience members to share their thoughts through an innovative approach that emphasized understanding, empathy and advocacy – all through a framework of civility.

      Wollman said at the conference that Widener's initiative is continuing in the current semester with another innovative approach – small group discussions that bring together students, faculty and staff to explore the principles of common ground. The groups of 12 to 15 people look at what's involved in having challenging conversations while listening to one another respectfully and learning from different viewpoints.

      Similarly, Widener's Political Engagement Committee is also emphasizing advocacy and engagement this semester and has plans for table talk events that find their roots in common ground. Faculty members are also continuing intergroup dialogue training sessions, designed and led by faculty, to help guide professors through thoughtful discussions about our collective similarities and differences, and prepare them to more deeply explore challenging societal issues in the classroom.

      "While we are in a very difficult, divisive, polarized time and are challenged in our society and on our campuses, we have fundamental values," Wollman said. "We have fundamental principles and those don't change. Going back to those founding documents as a touchstone is very, very important for us as colleges and universities, as well as for society."

      Wollman said finding common ground is about stepping outside the "filter bubbles" we often create for ourselves on social media. In those bubbles, we only engage with those who are like-minded, and do not follow those who hold different perspectives.

      "Students are actually learning to listen better to each other, and they are finding that they can respect people who have very different perspectives and try to find that common ground," Wollman said.

      During the featured session, Wollman also highlighted Widener's Courage Day, an initiative in which students encourage their peers to have conversations centered on courage.

      "One of the issues on college and university campuses is students say they are afraid to say what they believe," Wollman said. "We don't want that to happen. We know we have diversity of perspectives on our campus, and we want to create context where people can share those."

      Rosen praised Widener's efforts, saying the Common Ground Initiative is a model.

      "You are modeling the kinds of Madisonian conversations, he (James Madison) thought were necessary for the future of democracy," Rosen said during the session.

      An audio recording of the featured session is available online.


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