Retreat Explores Opportunities for Political Engagement on Campus

Graphic recorder Hope Tyson’s summary of the retreat was shared with the group, showing the value in constructing a visual representation of words and emotions.
Graphic recorder Hope Tyson’s summary of the retreat was shared with the group, showing the value in constructing a visual representation of words and emotions.

Political discussions can be found anywhere on Duke’s campus, from classrooms to residence halls to dining halls. But at a time of increasing political polarization, political discussion carries risks for higher education.

“Talking about political engagement puts us on tricky ground,” said Heather Settle of Duke’s Academic Advising Center, adding that while students and faculty find these discussions fundamental to scholarship and experiential learning, other people believe it’s not the role of a higher education institution to facilitate these activities.

Nearly 100 Duke faculty, staff and students met May 11 at the university’s fifth annual Engagement Retreat, cosponsored by Duke’s Academic Advising Center and Duke Service-Learning, to explore the challenge of—and opportunities for--political engagement in higher education.

This year’s retreat aimed to answer questions such as How should we relate to students’ activist commitments and the role these necessarily play in their education?  What resources or guidelines do we have that enable us to navigate the boundaries of service and social action, both for ourselves and for our students?  Do these differ in the curricular and co-curricular realms?  Are certain organizations, causes and methods inherently more political than others? 

The purpose was to use the discussion to determine ways to advance Duke programming and connect interested faculty and students across the campuses.

At the retreat, one participant described a challenge confronting her and others: What does it mean to be a conservative or a liberal?  A Republican or a Democrat?  “We are promoting political engagement at a time of shifting party views and hardening political lines.” 

Mike Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations, described the principles that guide institutional responses to political events occurring outside the “Duke bubble.” These principles are meant to fulfill the university’s legal responsibilities and ensure access for all political perspectives.

“We are at a time of intense interest and intense passion that many of us have tried to stimulate on campus for many years,” he said, adding that political engagement is one of the most intensely debated subjects debated on college campuses today.

“Partisanship essentially is a theological issue,” Schoenfeld said.  “It’s the most intense driver of emotional activity and is a—if not the—most dominant way people interact with each other.” 

Duke’s policies toward free speech, social media, political engagement and student engagement protect political discussion and encourages the elevation of disparate voices—even if those voices reach the level of protest: “A university that doesn’t permit protest is not a university,” Schoenfeld said.  And you can quote me on that.”

Representatives from campus units involved in political engagement and public scholarship discussed ways they connect with students and develop programming that moves the needle on political engagement.  The groups included the Forum for Scholars and Publics, University Center Activities & Events, Center for Multicultural Affairs, Religious Life, Duke Office of Civic Engagement and the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service (POLIS).

Students also contributed to the discussion. A student panel featuring Jared Chappell ’18, Betty Chen ’17, Nicolas Coleman ’20, Lina Palancares ’18, and Michaela Stith ’18 shared their experiences about how their political commitments have shaped their undergraduate education and what types of mentorship and support they’ve found most valuable. 

Students said they engage more openly with each other in dorms and that the best forms of student engagement are student driven.  However, Duke faculty and staff can play a valuable role in facilitating opportunities—service-learning courses, for example, or trainings offered by Duke’s identity centers. 

But students also cautioned that for some people and on some issues, political disagreement is a personal affront; they said there are times when political discourse is not productive.

The retreat ended with a look ahead to the 2017-18 school year.  Attendees shared how the day’s activities informed their thinking on new programming and new approaches to student engagement.