Widener Heads to SXSW EDU

President Julie E. Wollman and Delaware Law School Dean Rodney A. Smolla led a workshop at SXSW EDU.

Widener University President Julie E. Wollman and Delaware Law School Dean Rodney A. Smolla joined a prestigious lineup of innovators and educators last week when they presented at the South by Southwest Education Conference and Festival (SXSW EDU) in Texas.

The pair presented “Free Speech Workshop: The Search for Common Ground” at the Austin Convention Center. They used a case-focused approach that explored the concept of finding common ground on college campuses, and provided guidance on free speech issues.

Their role as presenters highlighted Widener’s Common Ground Initiative, which has grown to be a national model for challenging the polarization happening in our society.

It marked the second consecutive year Wollman has been a presenter at SXSW EDU. She presented a session on free speech and civil dialogue on and off campuses at last year’s event, with National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen. She has led the university’s commitment to seeking common ground through respect and mutual understanding. It is part of the university’s inclusive culture to provide the opportunity to share different thoughts and experiences and engage in civil dialogue.

Wollman launched the Common Ground Initiative in the fall 2017 semester. It began with an event at the National Constitution Center 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 her, Rosen and Smolla. Smolla is a nationally known constitutional lawyer with a specialty in free speech.

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.

Wollman said about 30 people attended their workshop, which was highly interactive. The diverse group of faculty members, faculty leaders, administrative staff, nonprofit leaders, media and more did some role-playing and worked through the difficult scenarios they presented.

“In the end, I noted that these highly challenging situations are complex and nuanced and there’s no one right answer,” Wollman said.

What we need to do most is what we think is right, as well as what is legal, and what provides the right model for our students and society, while communicating our decisions with clarity and transparency. —Julie E. Wollman

Wollman said she was pleased to take part in the prestigious event, two years in a row. The full SXSW EDU conference draws tens of thousands of attendees over four days for an experience that fosters innovation with the goal of impacting the future of teaching and learning.

“Widener University continues to lead the way in seeking to model respect for different perspectives, and I am proud to share our model with people from around the nation. I hope Widener can inspire others to seek common ground at a time when America needs more civil discourse,” she said.

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