Restoring Real Debate on College Campuses

A five-year-old program aims to teach students to argue without rancor.

I don’t sleep much after chairing a Braver Angels college debate. There’s a surge of excitement that reverberates for hours after I guide the collision of highly charged, diverse viewpoints that students carry into the classroom or auditorium. It defies gravity and buoys me up—which explains why I began writing this essay late at night in my hotel room after leading a debate on the campus of UNC Greensboro this past semester.

Launched in 2018, the national College Debates and Discourse program is an alliance between Braver Angels, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), and BridgeUSA—organizations that believe in the power of free expression and the respectful exchange of ideas on America’s college campuses. As of this writing at the end of spring semester 2023, the program has launched well over 150 campus and classroom debates, engaging more than 6,000 students across the nation.

The students who participate in these highly immersive, non-competitive debates—and especially those who co-organize them with us—are inspiring to be around. It’s not a stretch to envision them as future business leaders, public servants, and influencers in the social and political landscape. When they stand up to speak, they show courage, original thinking, deep listening, and compassion for each other. What’s particularly riveting is watching them drive the same kind of dialogue that I think must have guided the creation of American democracy.

The students who participate in these highly immersive debates are inspiring to be around.At the UNC Greensboro debate, 45 students wrestled with the topic, “Should the North Carolina Senate approve measure SB49?”—also known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights. The bill prohibits schools from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation through the fourth grade and requires schools to inform parents if students change their pronouns.

The eloquence and wide scope of students’ thought about their chosen topic—one that was also being debated by state politicians—moved me close to tears, probably because such debates, whether they take place in the classroom or legislative chamber, represent democracy in action.

Following the Greensboro debate, Professor Greg McAvoy, head of UNCG’s political science department, wrote, “I want to express my gratitude and admiration for the work that you do in promoting civil discourse and constructive dialogue among people with differing political perspectives.” He went on:

The students who participated did an exceptional job of preparing and presenting their arguments clearly and concisely—while demonstrating a willingness to listen and engage with opposing viewpoints. Through the discussion, the different assumptions and expectations for the bill by each side emerged. The chair and debate format was instrumental in guiding this encounter and ensuring that everyone had a chance to speak and be heard and respected.

The College Debates and Discourse (CD&D) program is gaining momentum as we refine our civil discourse ground game with each college and university that engages with us. In addition to supporting our work at UNC Greensboro, a seed grant from the Barnes Family Foundation enabled students at UNC Charlotte and North Carolina State University to engage in debates this past semester. At UNC Charlotte, students wrestled with the question, “Does regulating content on social media do more harm than good?” And at NCSU, students courageously took on a debate about abortion policy in the U.S. More public institutions in North Carolina will come into the pipeline later this year.

At NC State, students courageously took on a debate about abortion policy in the U.S.On the national higher-ed front, a key enabler has been the new Curricular Toolkit we developed with faculty and for faculty who want to build classroom debates into their lesson plans. We also partner extensively with students themselves, giving them ownership of what they want their campus debates to be about. With our help, they choose their own debate resolutions, recruit opening speakers, publicize the debates … and all of this integrates seamlessly into their busy schedules—even in the midst of midterm exams and college assignments.

The payoff is remarkable. After a debate last year at Duke University, Professor Deondra Rose wrote, “It was inspiring to see Duke students engage in such a rich conversation about free speech on college campuses, cancel culture, and related issues.” With Professor Rose’s guidance, Duke has since become a steady partner with the CD&D program. Last fall, she worked with us to launch a Braver Angels political polarization workshop in freshman orientation for 140 incoming students of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

Just a week later, at Denison University in Ohio, after we ran a series of debates for the entire incoming freshman class of 700+ students, many participants agreed that something profound had taken place and that the experience had changed them. “I’m asking myself how I can carry this kind of conversation forward to others in my life outside the campus and classroom,” one student said.

“A liberal arts education fundamentally depends upon everybody being a teacher and a learner,” remarked Denison’s President Adam Weinberg, who requested our assistance in shaping the university’s “Minds Wide Open” freshman-orientation weekend. Furthermore:

It depends upon people being excited to challenge orthodoxy, so that when someone says something that you find deeply offensive, you can figure out what you can learn from it. If colleges don’t find a way to reset the tone and habits with their incoming students, it’s going to be hard to help them take full advantage of educational opportunities that we’re providing on our campuses.

How long will the effects on students last, and what might be their long-term impact? Can sustainable communities of discourse be established on college campuses?

At the University of Delaware, Professor Lindsay Hoffman has begun working with our team to shape a research and evaluation approach exploring just that. Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the two-year project aims to help us cultivate best practices and share findings with the higher-education community.

The road ahead holds great promise for those of us seeking to cascade a culture of free expression and civil discourse on campuses across America. It is gratifying to watch our college program grow in North Carolina and many other states and regions around the nation. We’re also concertedly looking into how to stage college-based debates that welcome participation from local citizens in the surrounding community.

One might even come to a campus near you.

Doug Sprei is co-founder and director of the national College Debates and Discourse program, an alliance between the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Braver Angels, and BridgeUSA.