The power of civil debate

Gee: OSU must take lead in promoting well-reasoned discussion

By E. Gordon Gee

Having spent much of my summer traveling, I am freshly and forcefully reminded of the power of The Ohio State University. At every point along my journeys—through 44 Ohio counties, several states, and many key regions in China—alumni, students, families, and friends were eager to tell me how Ohio State changed their lives.

Whether I was in Millersport, Ohio, or in Shanghai, the reason for my visit was the same: expanding opportunities. Creating new partnerships in our ever-shrinking world enables us to develop new options for our students, our faculty and staff, our alumni, and our state. The advantages for local and global communities are both tangible and intangible.

As we teach and discover new knowledge across the broadest possible range of academic endeavors, as we stimulate economic and social vitality through innovation and collaboration, Ohio State offers something even more fundamental to human progress. This great public university fosters the ability to question, reason, and debate—and to do so in a thoughtful and respectful manner.

At the same time that we teach students to explore issues from multiple perspectives, we have a tandem civic purpose in serving our broader communities as a significant forum for debate. Never has that public mission been more important.

The signs of the need for a national common conversation are all around us. The profusion of fractious talk radio and bias disguised as cable news. A focus on public spectacle, disruptions, and epithets, and the absence of deeper context and meaning. National leaders spouting violent metaphors instead of well-reasoned dissent.

The danger in all of this is great.

I have said many times that my politics are strictly scarlet and gray, and I want to be clear that I see this as a pervasive problem involving the entire political spectrum. The vitriol and the false choices do nothing but inspire more of the same. As a result, the frustration and the volume escalate, perpetuating a cycle of sound bytes and cynicism.

Out of that din, those of us who are engaged in public higher education must have the clarity of purpose to understand both our possibilities and our responsibilities. We must be mindful of our public universities’ historic role in a democratic nation founded upon the wholly connected ideals of individual accountability, collective action, and informed debate.

We cannot sit back and bemoan the baleful effects of a society that does not discuss issues of importance. We cannot passively wait for the system to be remade. That is not democracy.

One of our university’s central roles is to foster a robust national dialogue. In recognizing the pressing need—and Ohio State’s ability to meet it—we can set a new cultural standard and become a prominent resource for serious, multifaceted discussion.

Ohio State’s breadth is its strength. Our faculty, students, staff, and alumni possess immense expertise in their own right, and they are connected with people of like talent and wisdom around the globe.

Think about the incalculable value of a public forum on immigration that incorporates historic, economic, legal, demographic, business, and sociological perspectives. And how might our nation have profited from a real-time symposium on health care that included experts in clinical care, politics, economics, finance, insurance, law, psychology, and other pertinent fields?

Those are two examples from a long list. In the context of so many challenges, assuming national leadership in advancing civil conversation is a substantial and controversial task, to be sure. That is precisely why it is so imperative.

Our university was founded to enlarge individual opportunity, improve our communities, and sustain democracy through expanded understanding. If we do nothing, we abdicate our noble purposes.

My summer travel has underscored Ohio State’s obligation to promote a deeper appreciation for the multiple viewpoints found throughout our world. To do that, we must further the cause of civil discourse for the greater good.

This essay originally appeared in the September/October edition of Ohio State Alumni Magazine.