by John Carfagno and Caroline Newman
How do government institutions remain functional, trustworthy, and effective? And what happens when they don’t?
How is income inequality influencing the way we vote, act, and live, and what can we do about it?
And what do democracies need from their universities?
These are just a few of the big questions that the University of Virginia’s Democracy Initiative, led by the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and the Miller Center of Public Affairs, will work to answer as it brings the full power of the University’s scholarship to bear on the most essential issues facing democracies around the world.
"This work will not sit on a shelf; it will go directly into the bloodstream in Washington and beyond, and invite policymakers, non-profit and business leaders, the public, and democracies around the world to engage with us so we can learn from one another." — Melody C. Barnes
In September, the University announced the official launch of the Democracy Initiative, along with the appointment of Melody C. Barnes, former director of the Domestic Policy Council for President Barack Obama, as co-director of the initiative. She was named as a professor of practice at the Miller Center to lead this effort, after having served since 2016 as a visiting professor and senior fellow there and a distinguished fellow at the School of Law. The College has begun a nationwide search for an academic co-director to join Barnes in leading the initiative and guiding the research agenda.
“I believe UVA is the best place to be doing this work at this moment, given the University’s rich scholarly resources and growing presence in Washington, D.C., where we can make use of the Darden School of Business’s new facilities,” Barnes said. “This work will not sit on a shelf; it will go directly into the bloodstream in Washington and beyond, and invite policymakers, non-profit and business leaders, the public, and democracies around the world to engage with us so we can learn from one another.”
The College announced recently that 17 donors have together committed a total of $12.9 million to propel UVA’s efforts to advance democracy. These gifts enable the Democracy Initiative to access up to $10 million in matching funds from the University’s Strategic Investment Fund. The initiative ultimately aims to attract investments in endowed professorships; visiting practitioners and faculty; graduate students; undergraduate forums; democracy events; and endowed research funds. The annual budget at full-scale would be $5 million, requiring endowment investments totaling $100 million.
Ian Baucom, Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts & Sciences, said the gifts and the leadership appointment enable UVA to launch the Democracy Initiative from a position of strength. “Thanks to the dedication and generosity of our donors, and Melody’s depth of experience in the field, we can take the compelling ideas driving the initiative and accelerate our ability to bring them to life,” Baucom said. “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.”
William J. Antholis, Director and CEO of the Miller Center, added: “At a fraught moment in history when democracies, including our own, are enduring extraordinary stresses, the University of Virginia will help navigate the dangers and draw lessons from best practices around the world.”
Interdisciplinary groups of faculty and student teams are addressing key research questions in the initiative’s first two “democracy labs,” focusing on issues ranging from corruption to media to religion and race. The labs will support new courses and share their research in multiple forms, including books, articles, digital media and podcast series like “Sources of In | Tolerance,” which will probe seminal works that shape ideas about religion and civic participation, democracy, and resistance.
The initiative also will host plenty of public events, including a three-day Presidential Ideas Festival in May, when White House veterans, political figures, and diplomats from both parties will join scholars and students on Grounds to discuss the future of the American presidency. The event will be moderated by CBS News’ John Dickerson (English ’91).
“It’s important to note that this work will not only be about history and politics, but also about the arts, science, economics, architecture, and more,” Barnes said. “Every discipline has a role to play as we build the Democracy Initiative, because they all shape our culture, the way we live, and how we exchange ideas.”