The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Johns Hopkins University wants to improve civic discourse. It hopes a new institute can help.

Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus in Baltimore in 2014. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Johns Hopkins University will use a $150 million gift to create an institute geared toward improving civic discourse and engagement, an effort that comes at a time of increased political tensions and polarization.

Hopkins, a private university in Baltimore, announced plans for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute earlier this month. At the institute, experts will look at the “dynamics of societal, cultural, and political polarization” and try to figure out ways to make discussions and decision-making processes better, a news release on the effort states.

“It really starts off with a strong sense on our part that democracy is only as strong as its citizen discourse and the quality of decision-making,” said Ronald J. Daniels, the university’s president. “Here, [we] really have been struck by the sense that we’re at a very challenging moment in history, with remarkable levels of citizen alienation and division and distrust.”

Essentially, experts at the institute — who will come from a variety of fields, such as political science, ethics and history — will look at ways to handle conversations between groups that see themselves as divided. How can we temper emotional appeals? How can we construct arguments, or change the way we interact, to pull people out of hard stances, so that they are more open to different perspectives?

“It’s really an attempt to restore the vibrancy and robustness of democratic dialogue in our contemporary society,” Daniels said.

The effort is funded with a $150 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which is tied for the third-largest gift that Hopkins has received. The largest, a $350 million gift from Michael Bloomberg, came in 2013.

“The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is committed to exploring issues that improve the functioning of civil societies today, and the connection to the Greek agora makes this particularly profound for us, since the agora was the heart of civic life, a common space for people to coexist as citizens rather than individuals,” Andreas Dracopoulos, co-president of the foundation, said in a release.

The university is expected to hire a director to lead the institute, as well as faculty members. They will be joined by visiting scholars, according to the release. A new building on the university’s Homewood campus is also part of the plans.

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