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by Molly Minturn

The Arts & Sciences Democracy Initiative continues to gain momentum on Grounds, with the launch of two democracy labs this spring and a partnership with the UVA Miller Center, a nonpartisan affiliate of the University specializing in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history.

“The Democracy Initiative rests on six key pillars,” said Dean Ian Baucom. “It must be objective, nonpartisan, and interdisciplinary. We need to bring in scholars not just from the College and Graduate School, but also UVA’s Miller Center and School of Law, as well as partners such as Monticello. It must be expansive in this way, drawing on knowledge outside the University. It will be influential, reaching policymakers in Washington, D.C. It must be inclusive, upholding democratic ideals, with equal access to students of all backgrounds. And finally, it must be a global project, bringing scholars and leaders around the world to a biennial gathering in Charlottesville.”

In February, the Initiative announced the launch of its inaugural democracy lab, entitled Religion, Race, and Global Democracies. Led by religious studies professors Martien Halvorson-Taylor and Kurtis Schaeffer, the project draws on faculty and graduate students from several Arts & Sciences academic departments, including religious studies, politics, history, African-American Studies, and media studies, as well as the Jewish Studies program.

Photo CreditDan Addison, Tom Cogill

Responding to the events of August 11 and 12 in Charlottesville and the issues surrounding them, the inaugural democracy lab explores a series of multifaceted teaching and research strategies as it examines the complex interrelationship of religion, race, and democracy (past and present) that faces democracy at the local, national, and global levels.

“This inaugural democracy lab helps us directly address the horrific events we experienced and witnessed last summer, and it will support our overall ambition to serve as the pinnacle of integrated research, teaching, and public engagement on democracy at a global scale,” Baucom said.

Inaugural democracy lab participants are developing courses and conducting research that draw together faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students from across departments. According to Halvorson-Taylor and Schaeffer, the lab will produce and present work aimed at a broad audience, including a podcast series called “Sources of In | Tolerance,” which presents the biographies of seminal works that shape ideas about religion and civic participation, democracy and resistance.

In addition, faculty are exploring how formative texts—such as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk; Mahatma Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth; and Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—are used, interpreted, and misinterpreted, in the service of democracy and as societies confront racism and intolerance. In this way, the lab engages issues that have come to the fore, once again, on Grounds and in Charlottesville over the last year, and it explores the obligation of universities to address deep problems in pluralist democracies.

In late April, the Democracy Initiative selected its second lab, which is focused on combatting corruption, and is led by scholars from disciplines across Arts & Sciences and the School of Law. The lab will run for up to five years and feature new classes, conferences, and research in the field of corruption studies.

Titled The Governance Initiative: Corruption in Institutions, History, and Markets, the lab is headed by Daniel W. Gingerich, associate professor of politics and director of the Quantitative Collaborative; Sandip Sukhtankar, associate professor of economics; David Singerman; assistant professor of history and American Studies; Sylvia Tidey, assistant professor of anthropology and global studies; Michael Gilbert, Sullivan & Cromwell Professor of Law; and Deborah Hellman, Massee & Morgan Professor of Law.

“Understanding and confronting corruption is crucial for a healthy democracy,” Baucom, says. “It’s an incredibly complicated issue, one that can only be studied through an interdisciplinary perspective. The cadre of faculty members leading this lab are intellectually diverse. This lab will allow them to pool their research methodologies—from field experiments, to game theory modeling, to philosophical inquiry—creating the strongest hub for corruptions studies in the nation.”

The lab focuses on four main categories of research: corruption and its links to political and campaign financing; electoral coercion; the historical political economy of democratic institutions; and corruption and the distortion of markets.

The faculty members are creating new corruption studies coursework across various disciplines. Next year, Gingerich and Sukhtankar will co-teach an undergraduate Forum in the College: Corruption, Governance, and Institutions.

 The College’s Forums Curriculum, which began in 2016, tailors groups of courses around a central theme. Each Forum admits 40 students who share a first-year introductory seminar and a second-year Capstone class on the specific topic. Forum students also enroll in an additional 24 credits of Arts & Sciences courses that are hand-picked by Forum faculty and directly address the Forum theme. The Corruption, Governance, and Institutions Forum will focus on the causes and consequences of corruption, and will examine policies that tackle corruption through presentations by anticorruption activists and practitioners.

Gilbert and Hellman are developing a new law course that surveys the universe of U.S. anticorruption laws. Singerman will teach two history seminars over the duration of the lab: The Global Financial Crisis of 2008, and Corruption and Fraud.

The lab will engage with the public in various ways. It will conduct much of its work on Grounds, and it will explore opportunities to work in the University’s new space in Rosslyn, Va., to collaborate more closely with D.C.-based researchers and policymakers. The lab’s faculty members will organize two conferences on corruption-related policy and governance—possibly to be held at the Rosslyn site. The conference organizers will invite policymakers, public prosecutors, anticorruption activists, and researchers from around the world to attend.

Both labs will fully launch in the 2018-19 academic year and will be housed on the first floor of the new undergraduate residential facility currently under construction on Brandon Avenue, adjacent to the South Lawn complex. More labs are expected to launch in the coming academic years, as well; one will be a core lab entitled  The History and Principles of Democracy, and three more will focus on media, global affairs, and opportunity.

Each lab will sponsor two undergraduate Forum classes, engaging up to 400 students per academic year. “I’m thrilled to see the Democracy Initiative come to life in these important ways,” Baucom said.

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