An enduring legacy of civil politics at Weber State University

Tuesday , June 13, 2017 - 5:00 AM

CAROL McNAMARA, special to the Standard-Examiner

“The Walker Institute at Weber State University combines two passions of mine: education and politics,” said former Utah Gov. Olene Walker.

Walker was always a voice of reason and moderate pragmatism. Her determination to put the common good above partisanship provided a model of open-minded public service and thoughtful leadership in Utah political life.

It is this example of leadership and public service, civil discourse and active citizenship, the Walker Institute has sought to promote from its inception in November 2012.

Walker believed that public universities have a civic responsibility to engage students and the community in a discussion of political ends, and the public policy means available to achieve them. Perhaps the university is not the only place where students learn how to discuss the most important political questions and issues, but it is certainly an important venue for them to acquire a political education and learn the importance of the civil exchange of ideas essential to the perpetuation of a healthy democracy.

When Thomas Jefferson sought to establish the University of Virginia as a public institution of higher learning, he hoped the university would serve as a place to enlarge the minds of students through the study of ideas and books in the liberal arts, math and sciences, which, in turn, would cultivate the habits of reflection that produce thoughtful human beings and educated citizens.

Jefferson believed that through this sort of education, students would learn the art of government and legislation, “the principles and structure of government… and a sound spirit of legislation,” which he trusted would teach the students knowledge of the equal rights on which they could base their freedom to pursue agriculture, manufactures and commerce. The result would be educated leaders in government, legislation, judicial matters, public and private prosperity, all tending toward the creation of a foundation for individual and public happiness.

Walker believed public universities must recreate the Jeffersonian civic engagement effort by two chief means: first, by engaging students in a conversation about the big political questions and ideas that are of permanent importance to educated human beings; and second, by building on that foundation, to involve students in a serious discussion of the ideas and policy issues that constitute a real civic education and prepare them to address the challenges confronting them and their communities today and into the future.

This civic education mission of the public university is both timeless and contemporary and should not require politicization. Instead, higher education and institutes of politics, public service and policy should introduce a conversation that produces not conformity of thought but rather the thoughtful combat of ideas for the common good.

Walker saw the institute as a campus center for the cultivation of leadership through a robust internship program and active citizenship through such a civil discussion of ideas. She hoped to see us partner with the community to sponsor debates among candidates and public officials across the political spectrum about the important issues facing Utah and to provide opportunities for civic education.

Whether we are in the midst of national, state, county, or municipal elections years, the Walker Institute has sought to cosponsor candidate forums and debates to provide the people with the opportunity to become informed voters and active citizens.

At many schools, we hear disturbing stories of incivility and threats to free speech on campus, but not at Weber State University. The nonpartisan Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service has done its part to work with student leadership, the American Democracy Project, and a broad variety of campus groups to cosponsor speakers and dialogues that bring a broad range of ideas for deliberation to campus.

Four years ago, I travelled to Weber State to interview for the position of Director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service. On July 1, I will pass the proverbial torch to a new director. The Walker Institute, in just a few years, has begun the process of creating a community dedicated to civil discussion and debate of political ideas and leadership.

I know that Governor Walker would join me in thanking the university and the community for its continued support of our efforts to continue to build that community.

Dr. Carol McNamara is the director of the Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University and a member of the political science faculty. Twitter: @carolmcnamara10.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.