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Linn-Benton Community College Civil Discourse Club President Brandon Calhoun asks a question of U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley about how Republicans and Democrats can get along during an April 2018 town hall meeting. 

Mark Urista, the chairman of Linn-Benton Community College's Communications Department, sometimes refers to LBCC as "Red County-Blue County Community College."

That's because, as an institution of higher education that serves both counties, it's bound to reflect the differing political philosophies in those counties. And he points to a survey of all LBCC students that vividly demonstrated that: The survey (which had an 8.6 percent return rate) showed that 27 percent of respondents identified with the Democratic Party and 24 percent with Republicans. (About 27 percent called themselves independent, and the remainder were scattered among a variety of viewpoints.)

So LBCC's campus might be an ideal testing ground for Urista's goal of making it safe for students (and others) to express all sorts of controversial views, from all points along the political spectrum.

The idea that college campuses aren't particularly open to conservative views was back in the news recently, when President Donald Trump, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, said he was planning an executive order that would help guarantee free speech at colleges and universities. He said that institutions that didn't protect the viewpoints of every political persuasion could put their federal aid at risk. 

We haven't heard anything more about this executive order since, so it could be that the president's attention has turned to other matters.

But even before Trump's speech, Urista and the Civil Discourse Club he helped to form at LBCC in 2017 were working on ways to help students feel more comfortable about expressing and debating (in a respectful manner) controversial ideas.

The Civil Discourse Club was founded in the wake of a controversy at LBCC involving an art display featuring sexually explicit images. Drawing on his background in speech and debate, Urista invited students in one of his classes to organize a debate on whether the display was appropriate for LBCC, but added a crucial caveat: They had to prepare arguments on both sides of the issue, just like in a debate competition, where contestants need to be prepared to argue both for and against a proposition. At the end of the classroom debate that eventually occurred, all the students in the class were offering arguments on both sides — and they forged some friendships.

The same survey of LBCC students that revealed a split in political leanings also asked students why they were reluctant to express opinions on controversial topics. The key finding: Students didn't want to make comments that might be perceived by others as being offensive. So, the students reasoned, it's better to play it safe on explosive topics such as politics, race and sexuality. Urista was familiar with that reasoning: In fact, he initially thought about having students discuss the issues surrounding the art exhibit, but then decided to stick with safer topics — until his students intervened. 

So the work of the Civil Discourse Club, and other efforts underway at LBCC, is to help build a framework in which students and others can feel safer to express opinions on controversial topics — and to teach the skills necessary for what Urista calls "constructive disagreement."

it's important work that is getting noticed elsewhere: The president of the club, Brandon Calhoun, has been invited to take part in a panel discussion at the Association of American Colleges and Universities' Diversity, Equity and Student Success Conference in Pittsburgh later this month. The discussion will feature students who have launched efforts on their campuses to advance viewpoint diversity. Urista himself has been invited to speak at the June conference of the Heterodoxy Academy, a bipartisan nonprofit that seeks to promote open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.

If it occurs to you that institutions of higher learning should, as a matter of course, promote open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement — if you think that these are among the key reasons why we have institutions of higher learning in the first place — Urista wouldn't disagree. But the fact that the Heterodoxy Academy exists in the first place (and the fact that it has generated some controversy of its own) suggests that there is at least some doubt in some corners that the academy is consistently fulfilling this part of its mission.

LBCC has arranged for events by outsiders to try to build this climate of openness to different viewpoints, and has more scheduled, including a May 21 session with two members of the Better Angels organization, which works to reduce political polarization in communities.

But the work also needs to extend into the classroom, Urista said: "It happens classroom by classroom, day by day." (mm)

 

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Mike McInally is editor of the Democrat-Herald and the Gazette-Times. Contact him at mike.mcinally@lee.net.

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