From President Scott R. Pilarz, S.J.
If you’ve read newspapers, watched television or even attended a spirited family gathering during this campaign season, you don’t need me to tell you about the spread of political rancor.
But there are a couple more encouraging observations I can offer: that universities have a valuable role to play in guiding us through this disputed terrain and that Marquette University is promoting constructive public dialogue in thoughtful and refreshing ways.
With their traditions of welcoming a wide-ranging exchange of ideas, Marquette and other leading universities are certainly places where you would expect to find stimulating discussions on politics and public policy. And members of our faculty certainly have considerable knowledge and expertise to share on the conduct of our democracy.
In fact, with its four election-related essays by members of our academic community, this issue of Marquette Magazine is itself a great example of how the brainpower at this university can help deepen our understanding of political issues at a time when it can be hard to see past the daily coverage of gaffes and gotchas. If you have wondered how the explosion of social media and shadowy soft-money advertising influences voters and campaigns, these essays are a good place to start reading.
One of the essays — the contribution of Christopher Murray of Marquette’s Les Aspin Center for Government in Washington, D.C. — also raises a provocative question that resonates at Marquette. “Because we now have more choices available to us, and instantaneous means for connecting with each other, we are able to self-select into our own communities of like-minded thinkers,” writes Murray. “Rather than conversing or debating honestly, more often than not, we simply reinforce our own beliefs and filter out information that challenges our thinking.”
In this kind of climate, is it still possible for people from diverse points on the political spectrum to come together for serious and civil sharing of views? A few years ago, Joseph Kearney, dean of Marquette Law School, thought the answer to this question was yes. He put in place a “public policy initiative” that took a key step forward with the hiring of Mike Gousha, whose experience as an interviewer, moderator and broadcast anchor in Wisconsin was unparalleled. The addition of policy-minded journalist Alan Borsuk as a senior fellow and the participation of faculty members in an influential blog and a growing set of conferences helped round out the effort.
The work of this team has revealed a considerable appetite for fair-minded engagement on the part of policymakers and the public. In hosting debates featuring major candidates for governor, U.S. Senate and the Wisconsin Supreme Court, to name just a few, Eckstein Hall has been established as a regular stop for statewide races. An interview series has probed the thoughts of people ranging from Congressman — and now vice presidential candidate — Paul Ryan to Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America. As someone whose interest in politics dates back to the college job I had in the office of the congressman from my home district, I recently jumped at the chance to join faculty members for a post-interview lunch with David Maraniss, biographer of Presidents Obama and Clinton.
Early this year, these efforts reached a new level of visibility and impact with the creation of the Marquette Law School Poll, made possible by the hiring of polling expert and University of Wisconsin –Madison faculty member Dr. Charles Franklin as a visiting professor. The results of the poll, the largest public opinion polling effort in Wisconsin history, have tracked closely with election outcomes and have helped explain what is motivating Wisconsin voters. They have also been front-page news across Wisconsin and featured by the Washington Post, New York Times and other major news operations. Look for Franklin’s insider’s view of the poll in this issue.
Summing up the dialogue that occurs there, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has called the Law School’s Eckstein Hall “Milwaukee’s public square.”
All of this political activity wouldn’t mean as much, however, if it somehow left students out of the picture. As students channel their passions and exercise their new roles as citizens, election seasons can be heady times on campus. So I was glad to see that a single recent week at Marquette included students analyzing fresh polling results, College Republicans hosting an appearance by Ann Romney and College Democrats reporting on Twitter that they had signed up hundreds from their ranks to attend a lakefront rally featuring President Barack Obama. At the end of the day, what pleased me most was the thought of these students coming of age in a university community that sends such a strong message about the promise of constructive political engagement.