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UA center to elevate the debate

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National Institute for Civil Discourse

UA center to elevate the debate

  • Fred DuVal, Brint Milward and Meredith Hay announce the National Institute for Civil Discourse.
    Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.comFred DuVal, Brint Milward and Meredith Hay announce the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

The University of Arizona announced a new center focused on creating healthy political debate on Monday.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse will be a center for discussion and policy-making on civility in public debate, representatives said at a morning press conference.

Former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton will be honorary co-chairmen of the center.

Conceived by Fred DuVal, vice chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents and former co-chair of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' finance committee, the institute will be housed at a downtown building donated by Tucson-based Providence Service Corporation.

The center was created in the wake of the Jan. 8 mass shooting that authorities call an assassination attempt on Giffords. Six were killed and 13 other wounded, including the congresswoman.

DuVal said he had "an epiphany" about creating the institute while listening to President Barack Obama speak at the memorial service for the victims of Jan. 8.

"Democracy is a fragile thing. It is in many respects like glass, that can safely hold the most flammable of liquid, but if it shatters it will engulf everyone in its wake."

"Just 5 weeks ago and just 5 blocks away, the 44th president called upon us to craft a country and a democracy worthy of the hopes of Christina-Taylor Green. We here uniquely know what he meant, and we here begin that work," DuVal said.

DuVal said that Giffords emailed Trey Grayson, director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics, just days before the shooting with thoughts on setting up a center to study how to improve the quality of civic conversation.

"This is a conversation that Gabby and all of us need to have take place in every university, spread to every civic club, to every hall of elected representatives, and maybe even to the dark parts of cable TV," he said.

"We can define thoughtful rhetorical boundaries, we can nurture self-control, and reward good behavior and best practices," DuVal said.

Arizona a 'test bed' for civility

The institute "is devoted to the principles that motivated Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: That people can have very different values and political preferences, but can still discuss these differences in a civil manner," said Dr. Brint Milward, the center's director, who also heads the UA's School of Government and Public Policy.

"I think that Arizona will provide a very good test bed for civil discourse," he said.

"Tucson has elected thoughtful leaders from both political parties for a long time," said Giffords' spokesman, C.J. Karamargin, commenting via phone after the press conference.

"Mo Udall was a national leader precisely because he used his kindness, common sense and good sense of humor to accomplish his goals," he said.

Karamargin said that although Giffords' office was not involved in setting up the institute, "Congresswoman Giffords promoted civil discourse long before the tragedy."

"We have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to our public debate," he said.

"Ideas matter, dialogue matters," UA Provost Meredith Hay told reporters, calling for a "more civil, thoughtful tone to our national conversation."

"We need to create a political reward, political benefit, political acceptance of more centrist and responsible behavior," DuVal said.

"The primary business model that you have is getting small groups and keeping them completely engaged in outrage. That's something that works financially, and that's something that works politically," Milward said.

"How do you keep a great democracy going when everyone is always ready to man the barricades?" Milward asked.

"The fact that we're not located on campus, that we're located downtown (at 64 E. Broadway), is a very strong signal that we're not a group of academics sitting around talking. We want to engage the community, people all across the country, in all walks of life," Milward said.

Window of opportunity

"While there's no relationship between the Tucson tragedy and civil discourse, it provided a window of opportunity to organize something that many people have been wanting to do for a very long time," Milward said.

"The tough question is, how do you measure success?" DuVal said. He compared creating consensus on responsible political speech to the recent social disapproval for litter and drunk driving.

"This is maybe pie in the sky, but if we can stitch together referees around the country, that have the credibility to say 'that one was out of bounds' to the right and left—and have the journalists bring that to the dialogue, and then have the public say, 'A-ha, that's right. That one went to far,'" DuVal said.

The center will be funded with private donations, organizers said. The Washington Post reported that $1 million has already been raised, but center representatives declined to disclose how much has been contributed to the project.

Major donors to the institute include Providence Service Corporation CEO Fletcher McCusker and Joseph Anderson, former CEO of Schaller Anderson.

"We were immediately engaged," Fletcher McCusker said. "I think we were all moved, we remember exactly where we were on Jan. 8. It was kind of Kennedy moment."

"I had no idea (the institute) would attract this kind of national notoriety," he said. "Not only is it about the UA, it's about Tucson, and about downtown Tucson. I think we have a chance to change the world, one person at a time."

"This may change the way we communicate, the way we disagree and debate," McCusker said. "The media needs to provide proper incentives for people to have a civil debate. That may change the game, if you're so bitter and so outrageous, that it's no longer acceptable."

"Our country needs a setting for political debate that is both frank and civil, and the National Institute for Civil Discourse can make a significant contribution toward reaching this goal," Bush said in a news release from the UA.

Clinton & Bush

"America faces big challenges in revitalizing the American Dream at home and preserving our leadership for security, peace, freedom and prosperity in the world. Meeting them requires an honest dialogue celebrating both a clarification of our differences and a genuine stand for principled comparisons," Clinton said. "I believe that the National Institute for Civil Discourse can elevate the tone of dialogue in our country, and in so doing, help us to keep moving toward 'a more perfect union.'"

Others to serve on the center's board will be former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Madeleine K. Albright, former secretary of state; Kenneth M. Duberstein, former chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan; Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren; Harvard's Grayson; and former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse will be part of the UA's School of Government and Public Policy, in collaboration with the Rehnquist Center on the Constitutional Structures of Government in the James E. Rogers College of Law and other UA departments.

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