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Heffner discusses open minds with UNH students

Alexander Heffner, host of “The Open Mind,” stopped by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) campus to deliver a public lecture titled “Civil Discourse in an Uncivil Age” on Wednesday in Hamilton Smith Hall.  

“The Open Mind,” the longest running, nationally broadcasted, public affairs interview program in the history of American public television, facilitates conversations with invited guests in hopes of providing a format of discussion regarding ideas like politics, media, science, technology, the arts and civic life. Covering American politics, civic life and millennials since the 2008 presidential campaign, Heffner has been recognized by organizations such as The Washington Post, New York Times, “NPR,” “C-SPAN,” among others. 

“To my mind, civility is not about decorum and manners, although those are absent in a lot of deliberations today,” Heffner said, emphasizing the importance of now. “It’s even more so about achieving civil society and discourse is part of that, dialogue is part of that, but disagreement sometimes even discord and disobedience is part of that too.” 

The presentation was divided into a lecture and a discussion with a forum of panelists that represented various areas of expertise. The panelists included Representative Carol Shea-Porter; Former New Hampshire Attorney General, Tom Rath; University of New Hampshire (UNH) Professor of Political Science Dante Scala; and UNH Professor of Communication Sheila McNamee. 

“In regards to our current political climate, the panel did a good job on emphasizing that we don’t need to necessarily agree with those who think differently on certain issues and topics, but rather try to understand the ‘other’ through dialogue, genuine curiosity, and gracious contestation,” senior communications major Jake Gardner said. “We live in an extremely complex world and all come from different backgrounds and life experiences – This is what shapes our conclusions on issues. Having the curiosity and compassion to try to understand how others come to their conclusions is a good place to start in order to build relationships and have transformative dialogue. We would be surprised at how much we learn from each other by challenging ourselves to understand one another.” 

The Civil Discourse Lab (CDL) is a UNH program that launched in Dec. 2017, working to locate communication practices in the relationship between civility, academic freedom, and freedom of expression in the classroom, within administration and on campus.  

“The CDL’s mission is to strengthen the ability of our students and community members to conduct meaningful conversations, collaborate, and weigh decisions around sometimes difficult but important topics to a civil society through research, engaged teaching, and praxis,” said Jennifer Borda, an associate professor and chair for the department of communication. 

Scala, a Carsey Faculty Fellow and Master in Public Policy Faculty, explained the need for structure within discussion to enable proactive and effective communication. He asked the audience to recall how a structure of a classroom— from the way chairs are set up to the way a professor facilitates questions and answers from students— effects the way students digest information.  

The CDL, which is committed to non-partisanship, focuses on the art of facilitating and participating in discussions. They bring Scala’s thought to fruition by training students to become neutral facilitators during challenging and contentious discussions. By using small groups to focus participants on fundamental differences, shared values, and listening to each other’s perspectives, they are taught to be informed members of discussions—- from classrooms to global conversations. 

Borda, co-director of the CDL, explained that the CDL was the primary sponsor and host of the event.  

Additional funding for the event was from the Carsey School of Public Policy, the New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative/Mellon Foundation Grant, the Parents’ Association Grant Funds, Class of 1954 Academic Enrichment fund, the Civil Discourse Lab and the Responsible Governance and Sustainable Citizenship Project. 

“We hope that by hosting a speaker series each year that brings experts in the area of civil discourse to campus, we can expose the greater university community to these perspective on learning and communicating in an effort to support students in talking together through public problems in a way that is inclusive rather than decisive and pragmatic rather than partisan,” said Borda. 

On Friday, Oct. 18, Heffner will be facilitating an interactive workshop in MUB Room 330/332 at 9 a.m., that will further address freedom of speech/academic freedom on campus, including the guardrails of civility and the challenge of balancing intellectual rigor, freedom of speech, academic freedom, civil rights, and civil disobedience with a focus on civil dialogue as a bridge to deliberative process based in democratic rights and principles. The workshop will be open to both students and faculty.  

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