U-M theme semester to explore topics of democracy


The free exchange of ideas. What it means to participate in a democratic society. Democratic engagement around the world.

These are just a few of the concepts at the center of the Democracy & Debate Theme Semester, a universitywide academic initiative launching this year as the University of Michigan prepares to host the nation’s second of three presidential debates this fall.

Debate logo

The theme “semester,” which actually includes programming and events throughout the year, includes four components, the first of which is a series of events this winter intended to inspire democratic engagement around Michigan’s March 10 primary election, cultivate excitement around the debate and election season, and build the capacity of U-M’s instructional faculty as they prepare for fall 2020 courses.

The other components of the theme semester include:

  • A curated list of fall 2020 courses available to undergraduate and graduate students registering this term and over the summer.
  • A U-M Presidential Events Series, as well as signature events from schools, colleges and other university units.
  • The Democracy & Debate Collection, a compilation of online learning opportunities, educational materials and digital assets to be made available before and after the debate for the campus and alumni communities and broader public.

The 11-member Presidential Debate Academic Advisory Committee has designed the theme semester to take full advantage of the unique opportunity the campus community has to engage with the democratic process this fall, said committee chair Angela Dillard.

“Because they link courses and events in dynamic and focused ways, theme semesters are well-suited for multidisciplinary explorations,” said Dillard, the Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies and in the Residential College, and professor of Afroamerican and African studies and in the Residential College.

“What makes Democracy & Debate distinctive is not only the contributions from across the university, but also the connection to an event broadcast worldwide. This gives us the potential to have conversations that span the campus, the state and the globe. We’ve never had a theme semester with this kind of reach.”

The Democracy & Debate programming will stretch across all 19 schools and colleges on the Ann Arbor campus, and will include resources from Michigan Online, University of Michigan Press, U-M Museum of Art, Wallace House and other units across all three U-M campuses.

The initiative will draw on the vast expertise of the U-M community to provide a variety of perspectives on topics related to democracy and voting, as well as the issues at play in the 2020 election cycle, from health care to climate change.

Additionally, the theme semester will include an effort led by the Center for Academic Innovation to create materials “of lasting value,” intended to engage a variety of audiences through Michigan Online, the university’s portal for online learning opportunities. The Democracy & Debate Collection will make online learning opportunities and resources available to the entire campus and alumni communities as well as learners across the state and around the world.

In a message to faculty last month, Michael Barr, dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president for government relations, urged U-M faculty to submit both academic courses and event ideas for consideration in the theme semester. Barr and Wilbanks serve as co-chairs of the university’s Debate Steering Committee.

“As a public institution, our mission is to educate a student body to engage actively in the processes of just governance,” Barr and Wilbanks wrote. “The hosting of a presidential debate in fall 2020 underscores the importance of the free exchange of ideas in the democratic process.

“While fall 2020 will not be without its challenges, we are excited about the unique opportunities this moment holds, and we look forward to the creative energy and engagement of all of our faculty as you shape the learning experiences of our students at this important moment in time.”


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