Up From the Gutter: A Big Campus Gift Aims to Elevate Political Discourse

In a political season that has featured violent clashes at political rallies and candidates' attacks on opponents' spouses, it seems that public discourse has plunged to new lows.

Now comes the John Templeton Foundation to the rescue. One of the country's most interesting funders, it recently awarded $5.75 million to the University of Connecticut to support research into ways of balancing humility and conviction in today's public discourse.

Not a moment too soon, right? Politics, by its very nature, is divisive, but the current season has often been the polar opposite of civil discourse. There have been repeated incidents of clashes between protesters and supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. At one rally, a Trump supporter was caught on camera punching a protester in the face. Trump's own campaign manager has been charged with battery after an incident in Florida after which a reporter accused him of grabbing her.

But the incidents are not limited to the Trump campaign. Others have included the hijacking of a Bernie Sanders rally in 2015 by Black Lives Matter protesters and presidential primary debates that sound more like clashes between schoolyard bullies than exchanges of ideas and visions. The image of President Reagan and then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill sharing a cocktail, putting aside partisanship, and declaring that they were friends after 6 p.m. seems a distant memory at best.

There is a long history of foundation efforts to raise the level of public discourse in politics in the United States. One of the biggest efforts now underway is the Hewlett Foundation's Madison Initiative, which seeks to reduce the high level of polarization and hyper-partisanship in the U.S. Congress. 

We've also reported on other initiatives to improve the quality of media coverage of policy issues and the quality of public discourse. 


Meanwhile, a range of funders have looked to universities as a key to creating deeper, better informed public policy debates by supporting new research and a new generation of policy leaders. We've reported on many recent major gifts in that area. (See more here.)

Templeton is a major funder of higher ed work, and this is great grant money if you can get it. In this case, the foundation hopes to inject open-mindedness and intellectual humility into the public discourse through its grant to the University of Connecticut's Humanities Institute. The $5.75 million is the largest grant ever received by the institute at UConn. It is also one of the larger humanities-based research grants we've seen lately.

The Templeton funds support three public forums, a series of summer institutes for high school teachers on integrating intellectual humility into their classes, and a series of media initiatives aimed at raising awareness of the issue of civility in public discourse. Research activities funded by the grant include a fellowship program, competitive research grants for interdisciplinary research teams, and some collaborative work with the Scholarly Communications Design Studio. The latter is a UConn initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation.

This intersection of scientific research with the humanities is Templeton's sweet spot when it comes to funding. The Pennsylvania-based foundation embraces an outside-the-box approach to funding research, supporting projects that connect science and the scientific method with the worlds of religion, the arts, literature, and other topics in the humanities.

Michael Lynch, director of the institute at UConn and the project's principal investigator, hopes the work will promote more constructive dialogue on divisive issues not only in politics, but also in science and religion. We need only look at today's debates over the role of government, science's challenges to faith, and the role of religion in public life to see that his team has its work cut out for it.

Related: Templeton Remains the Oddest—or Most Interesting—Big Foundation Around