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The Democracy Initiative

Long before the events of August 11 and 12, Dean Ian Baucom was driven by one question:

What do democracies need from their universities?

By Molly Minturn

The College’s new Democracy Initiative, designed from the ground up by the Arts & Sciences community, will bring UVA’s best research in the social sciences, humanities, law and policy into the public sphere. An ambitious, interdisciplinary research and teaching enterprise, the initiative will engage everyone from undergraduates to world leaders.

Dean Baucom discusses the Democracy Initiative and explains the natural and unique connections to UVA.

Why is there need for the Democracy Initiative?

Today’s democracies—old and new alike—face major challenges. These include poverty, joblessness and inequality; population migrations across borders; eroding support for democratic institutions and norms; tensions over religion, race and gender role change; corruption; pressures of food and water shortages, especially in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria; and a changing media environment that simultaneously empowers authoritarian leaders and protesting crowds.

Leading democracies like ours should advance the unfinished business of democracy. I see our job in Arts & Sciences as repairing the social contract between higher education and our common civic life—a contract inherently connected to the issue of democracy. The nature of this almost unspoken but strong social contract on the place of higher education within our common civic life has become unraveled. The well-being of the republic is tied to the existence of a free and educated citizenry, and the well-being of a free and educated citizenry depends upon universities providing excellent public education. That contract dates back to the Jeffersonian founding of the University of Virginia.

That contract has loosened with significant reductions in the overall federal support for education and research, and significant reductions in state support nationwide for public higher education. Furthermore, on a national level, we have not been as clear as we could be about the purpose of a liberal arts education.

In my time here, we have made strides in rebuilding this contract. Arts & Sciences has hired 185 new, tenured and tenure-track faculty since the Faculty Forward campaign began in 2012. We’ve launched an innovative new general education curriculum that better prepares students for 21st-century life. Our neurosciences undergraduate program has become a major player in the UVA Brain Institute. Our newly launched Environmental Resilience Institute will tackle some of the biggest problems facing society.

The opportunity stands before us to build on these strengths. For nearly two years, Arts & Sciences has been planning the launch of a new Democracy Initiative, an ambitious, interdisciplinary enterprise. The Initiative will be connected to every aspect of our mission, from teaching, to research, discovery and public engagement with external partners. The impact of our work will reverberate in the future citizen-leaders we educate, in the innovative research that advances our understanding of the democratic project, and in the public engagement that influences its future prospects through policy.

What qualifies the University to lead this effort?

The University of Virginia was created in 1817 for a specific purpose—to educate the American citizenry to help democracy flourish. Our history, along with our proximity to Washington, D.C., uniquely positions the University to be the global center for the study of democracy’s successes and failures, opportunities and threats, and to influence policies that strengthen democracies worldwide.

What happens here simply has a meaning and a significance that no other university can match. Our top leadership agrees: the Democracy Initiative received a $10 million matching grant from the University’s Strategic Investment Fund at the Board of Visitors’ June 2017 meeting. Over the next decade, what UVA does will matter with an incomparable intensity.

How will the Democracy Initiative be structured?

There will be five main elements: a constellation of group research labs; a biennial democracy summit that brings world leaders to Grounds; a presence in Washington, D.C., with access to policymakers; an expansion and enhancement of the College’s new curriculum; and endowment of the Bicentennial Scholarship Fund and Faculty Diversity Fund to attract talented minds of all means and backgrounds.

What is the role of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in the wake of August 11 and 12?

In light of those horrific events, we issued a call for proposals for an inaugural democracy lab that examines the challenges facing democracies in our local community. In January, we decided that the inaugural lab will be led by religious studies professors Martien Halvorson-Taylor and Kurtis Schaeffer, and focus on religion, race and global democracies.

Read on for more about the origin and structure of the Democracy Initiative.


The Democracy Initiative was originally conceived in 2016 through a series of strategic planning conversations between the Dean's Office and A&S faculty. “We were looking for initiatives that responded to ‘big challenges,’ and there are few challenges bigger than how to govern societies effectively, fairly and in ways that are responsive to the wishes of the people, in an era when opinions seem to be increasingly polarized,” said Len Schoppa, associate dean for the social sciences and professor of politics. “The idea resonated with many faculty in the social sciences and the humanities, and the initiative was born.”

As many as four rotating research labs will run for three to five years at a time, each focusing on a particular challenge to democracy, Baucom said. The inaugural launch lab will address the events of August 11 and 12. Faculty from a wide variety of disciplines have applied to lead up to three additional labs, anticipated to launch in the fall of 2018. Alongside the rotating labs, there will be one core anchor lab dedicated to the history and principles of democracy. Each lab will be led by a team of faculty with active research agendas in the area, working with postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and small groups of undergraduate students. The labs will be housed in the first floor of the new undergraduate residential facility adjacent to the South Lawn complex on Brandon Avenue, opening as early as August 2019.

By partnering with the Darden School of Business on a property in Rosslyn (Northern Virginia), the Democracy Initiative will create a “UVA in D.C.” program, offering opportunities for College faculty to organize and teach outreach programs in the area and for students to learn and participate in internships during the fall and spring terms. The Initiative will also work with the Miller Center of Public Affairs to publicize the findings of its research projects to policymakers in Washington, D.C., and with international organizations.

The Democracy Initiative will expand on the College’s Forums, a two-year undergraduate curriculum program launched in the fall of 2016. Forums are tailored groups of courses (31 credits) organized around a central theme or problem. The Initiative will launch a Forum that explores an important aspect of democracy and ties it to one of its rotating labs.

Partnering with the School of Law, the Miller Center, the Presidential Precinct and Monticello, Baucom said the Democracy Initiative aims to host a biennial “Davos-like summit” of scholars, policy experts and world leaders on Grounds to discuss pressing issues relating to democracy, and to focus on generating new ideas and solutions.

For the Democracy Initiative to thrive, the University must attract the most talented and dedicated faculty, students, professionals and practitioners anywhere, Baucom said. “Just as democracies are strengthened by embracing equal access and a plurality of perspectives, the University will be strengthened if it remains accessible and affordable to talented students of all means and backgrounds.” Consistent with this vision, the Democracy Initiative includes an ambitious target for the Bicentennial Scholars Program: a need-based undergraduate scholarship program aimed at ensuring affordable access. Likewise, the College will seek endowment gifts to attract the most talented and diverse faculty members to our university. “In short,” said Baucom, “we will both study democracy and embody its highest ideals.”

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