Public affairs institute gains momentum: Debate persists regarding “freedom” in the title

Over the past year, St. Olaf faculty members have been hard at work designing the Institute for Freedom and Community. The Institute was created using funds from affluent donors, who wanted to promote student interest in public policy and civic discourse.

Last summer, a faculty task force was assembled to plan the Institute. The task force then presented their plans to the St. Olaf Curriculum Committee, the Political Awareness Committee and the Student Government Association, and students and faculty are now beginning to see the Institute in operation.

The Institute recently co-sponsored the 2015 Social Science Conference. A variety of speakers, including the well-known political scientist Theda Skocpol, were invited to speak to students on the issue of inequality in America. The Institute is also sponsoring an ongoing lecture series on race and policing called “Community, Race, and Policing in America.

Dan Hofrenning, Dean of Social Sciences and director of the faculty task force, is excited about the Institute’s ability to attract prominent speakers.

“That’s kind of the vision of the Institute,” Hofrenning said. “To bring in really strong speakers, many of them academics, who can look at problems from different perspectives, and to allow students and faculty to engage them.”

The Institute will be responsible for a series of programs, including a new Conversation program that is pending approval and would debut next fall.

The Public Affairs Conversation will be offered to juniors and seniors. It includes two courses and a paid internship.

“The first course will be a little bit more historical, but it will end with a look at contemporary normative perspectives,” Hofrenning said. “The second course will be a lot more empirical, but it will also be going over some of the normative concepts from the first course.”

For all its attributes, the Institute has attracted some criticism by the faculty. The Institute’s title has been the subject of substantial debate. Some worry that the use of the word “freedom” in the title gives the Institute an inaccurate conservative connotation.

DeAne Lagerquist, Professor of Religion, said, “My personal response is that I understand both of those words, community and freedom, as very capacious and multi-valiant. They mean many things and they allow many meanings. But I also realize that they’re contested. Some of my colleagues are more attentive to contemporary contest about those words, and I’m interested in what they have to say.”

It has been clear to the faculty that the name of the Institute is no longer open to debate.

“I thought the most telling comment I heard about the name was what [a colleague] said in the last faculty meeting,” Lagerquist said. “It wasn’t specifically about any contemporary political meanings attached to the words, but rather, he said, ‘I read all the documents, and I noticed that in the description of the program, neither freedom nor community come up very much, but rather other concepts, and it strikes me as peculiar that we would name something and then those names wouldn’t appear in the founding documents.'”

Ed Santurri, Professor of Religion and part of the task force, was quick to address concern for the title.

“The criticism of some is that in contemporary parlance, ‘freedom,’ connotes ‘conservative’ in the public mind. While there’s some truth to that observation in certain highly restricted contexts, for example, Fox News and MSNBC, I don’t think the title of our institute raises real worries in this regard.”

Santurri goes on to argue that the word “freedom” in juxtaposition with “community” indicates a dialogue between normative perspectives. He also points out that “freedom” is used across the political spectrum.

“Liberals, even to the radical left – for example, the African-American political philosopher, Cornel West – continue to use the language of freedom in positive and vibrant ways and challenge vigorously the conservative interpretation of freedom,” Santurri said.

Another point of controversy for the Institute involves its implementation. The Institute is the first of its kind at St. Olaf and has not passed through the normal administrative channels that review curriculum. The Institute’s unique nature has engendered some suspicion within the faculty.

“My concerns from the beginning in part have been related to the procedure by which this has come forward. It has been less than graceful,” Lagerquist said. “Moreover, that lack of grace has catalyzed people’s awareness that it’s not unusual for things to be botched. So that’s what I’ve been most concerned about, not just how do we resolve the issues about [the Institute], but how do we learn from this instance and others in the same sort of realm. How do we learn to do our business better?”

Faculty skepticism regarding the Institute has declined since its presentation to the Curriculum Committee. Having been provided details on the Institute sponsored courses, there appears to be growing faculty support.

“I think the fact that the original idea for this center came from donors outside the college made a lot of faculty skeptical,” Hofrenning said. “The process now will be one in which faculty and students can come to own it and appreciate it, and I think that’s happening. I think that really, the Institute will be what it does, and I think this spring, people are getting a good sense at what it will be by looking at the programs.”

Santurri agrees that many worries have been put to rest with the outlining of details to the Curriculum Committee.

“We met with the general faculty Curriculum Committee, at which there was a useful discussion of how we will implement in detail. The Committee gave every indication that it supported the development of the Public Affairs Conversation,” Santurri said.

Discussion will continue as the Institute continues its quest for faculty approval. The Public Affairs Conversation will be advertised to students pending its approval, and the Institute will continue to sponsor, as well as co-sponsor, different political discussions on campus.

Lagerquist is among the faculty who still need some convincing.

“The irony of it is that this is all supposed to be about good, civil deliberation, and what it sparks is that we don’t seem to be very good at that. Maybe that suggests that we really need it.”