Big Ten policy schools collaborate on civic involvement

November 1, 2021

The University of Michigan is joining with other policy schools across the Big Ten to launch Democracy in the 21st Century, a conferencewide collaboration to develop educational programming that promotes active civic education and engagement.

Driven by the Big Ten’s public policy school network, this initiative involves all schools in the conference and harnesses the diverse assets of the Big Ten in development of programming for students, faculty, staff and local communities.

Deans Michael Barr of U-M’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, Robert Orr of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and Trevor Brown of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University are leading this collaboration to bring students from diverse backgrounds and perspectives together to address the challenges to democratic systems.

The initiative follows the recent announcement that U-M is extending its Democracy & Debate program through the current academic year.

“I’m excited to be collaborating with my fellow policy school Big Ten deans to advance civic education and support student engagement,” Barr said.

“Here at U-M, this collaboration is part of our broader work on Democracy & Debate, and will help provide opportunities for U-M students from across campus to engage with their fellow students at other Big Ten schools. I encourage students, no matter their major or school or background, to participate.” 

A Democracy in the 21st Century working group of faculty, staff and students from across the Big Ten Conference has focused its efforts on five themes that will unfold across this academic year:

  • Voting access.
  • The federal judiciary in the 21st century.
  • Civics education.
  • Challenges to democracies globally.
  • Rural and urban environmental justice.

Catherine Carver, U-M’s lead for Democracy & Debate 2021-22, is co-chairing the working group with Paul Brown, director of the Civic Innovation Center at the University of Maryland.

The programming will include panels with national experts, many drawn from the Big Ten schools; cross-conference, student-led Dinners for Democracy; and a Jan. 28 Big Ten student virtual policy simulation on voting, led by Elisabeth Gerber, the Jack L. Walker Jr. Professor of Public Policy at U-M.

The collaboration will culminate in a conference hosted by the University of Maryland in fall 2022.

In recognition of the need to bring students with diverse perspectives together, a key feature of the collaboration is the Big Ten Dinners for Democracy series. Designed by U-M’s Turn Up Turnout, Dinners for Democracy are non-partisan learning opportunities that cover issues important to student voters with student-led presentations and facilitated dialogue.

A committee of students from across the Big Ten is designing the series, with the first dinner occurring Nov. 17 with 100 students from U-M and Ohio State.

“Dinners for Democracy help students connect the dots between the issues they care about and how to use their votes to make a positive difference to those issues,” said Edie Goldenberg, professor of political science in LSA, professor of public policy in the Ford School, and Turn Up Turnout’s founder and faculty adviser.

“This peer-to-peer, issue-based education explains how and why relatively low-visibility elected offices at the state and local levels matter to each issue, where to find additional research-based information about each issue, and how to find or collect non-partisan information about where candidates for office stand on each issue.”

Democracy in the 21st Century grew out of the Big Ten policy school network and the collaboration represents the breadth and reach of collective planning.

As the United States and countries across the globe grapple with historical, systemic challenges to democracy — from voting access and misinformation to the impact of global environmental pressures and systemic racism — while trying to move forward in a deeply polarized political climate, universities are poised to address this challenge.