Student participants in the 2020 SLU Connect-DC program. Photo by Jeff Mauritzen.

Fostering Civil Discourse in Political Conversations

Jonathan Brown

“I think everyone is well aware that there’s a lot of division in political thought in America today,” says Martha MacCallum ’86, P’23. Having worked for NBC and CNBC news outlets before joining the Fox News Network in 2004, MacCallum has a unique perspective. As the anchor of the nightly news show “The Story with Martha MacCallum,” her work includes daily conversations with leaders from across the political spectrum.

“We all have experiences that test the way we approach things, even those things we thought we fully understood,” says MacCallum. “When you’re in an educational environment like St. Lawrence, you can absorb even more information. Sometimes, you might change your opinions about things. You might not. But I believe that simply having open dialogue is really the basis of education, and you have to have it respectfully.”

For MacCallum, investing in creating new student opportunities is one way to open that dialogue. As part of The Campaign for Every Laurentian, MacCallum recently made a major gift with three objectives: supporting the St. Lawrence Fund; supporting the networking and career- development program SLU Connect; and creating a new, on-campus initiative called Fostering Civil Discourse in Political Conversations.

This unique effort is beginning to take shape. St. Lawrence Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs Karl Schonberg is one of the faculty members working on specifics. He says the initiative is scheduled to include lectures, research into controversial issues, informal chat sessions, and even large student gatherings with keynote speakers on campus.

“We’re connecting with student groups now,” Schonberg says. “It’s important to ensure that this initiative will have an impact across our community. As always, we’re focusing on students and learning outcomes. We want them engaged, from the planning stages onward.”

MacCallum sees St. Lawrence as an ideal place for this kind of dialogue—and the late teens and early 20s as the right time of life to deepen political knowledge. “College is where you want to expand your way of looking at the world. You want to be exposed to other kinds of thought and you want to be open and tolerant of differences,” MacCallum explains. “Just as we encourage diversity in so many ways, I think we also want to recognize political diversity as well.”

MacCallum and Schonberg consider the program a natural outgrowth of St. Lawrence culture. 

“Since 1856, the University’s mission has been educating citizens for democratic engagement,” says Schonberg. “We help students develop their own views so they can be engaged in the crucial questions within American society. By listening to others, we refine our own views and help others learn. This is how we find common goals and shared values. It’s one of the best ways to figure out solutions that might elude those who are solely focused on a limited perspective.”

Schonberg also speaks of that respect as vital to both St. Lawrence and civil discourse. “All of this is distinctly Laurentian,” he adds. “The strength of our community and the way we value it, these things distinguish us from other liberal arts colleges. As Laurentians, we have an attachment to each other and to this place. Our network is remarkably strong for that reason.” Schonberg believes MacCallum’s gift provides the resources to launch this initiative and put both the University’s culture and learning into action.