Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

The 21st-Century Chautauqua project is a model for encouraging a culture of civility in MSU's living and learning communities.

Creating a Culture of Civility at MSU


When Michigan State University senior Melissa Clark first heard that the university was looking for students interested in participating in a series of dialogues, she was intrigued. When she learned that the dialogues would focus on topics of sustainability and human rights, and that students would collaboratively plan the discussions, she was sold. "Those are topics I'm really passionate about, and from the very first meeting, we, as students, got to decide how we wanted it to go," Clark explains.

The project, called A 21st-Century Chautauqua, is a two-year project of campus dialogues involving students from three degree-granting residential colleges and faculty members and administrators from across the disciplines. In conjunction with AAC&U's initiative,Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility, the project seeks to become a model for encouraging a culture of civility and responsibility within MSU's living and learning communities.

Creating a Chautauqua for the Twenty-First Century

The term "Chautauqua" originally referred to the Chautauqua Institution near Jamestown, New York, founded in 1874, where vacationing families could hear lectures on various topics and participate in dialogues and workshops. More Chautauquas were formed all over the country, and the term eventually came to mean any public discussion of important issues.

At Michigan State, the idea of a Chautauqua for the twenty-first century emerged from discussions among faculty and student affairs and residence life administrators about ways to encourage students to engage in dialogue—instead of confrontation—about sensitive or controversial topics. Stephen Esquith, dean of MSU's Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, and Douglas Estry, associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of undergraduate studies, submitted a proposal to AAC&U in 2006 to join its Core Commitments initiative to develop the dialogue project. In January 2007, the proposal was accepted, making Michigan State a Core Commitments Leadership Consortium school. With support from the John Templeton Foundation through Core Commitments and a matching pledge from MSU, the Chautauqua dialogues became a reality.

"There were two things we wanted to focus on doing well: ethical reasoning, and respect for the views of others," Esquith says. "This seemed to naturally imply dialogue." The next major decision was how to recruit students for participation. With 35,000 students on MSU's campus, Esquith and Estry knew it would be essential to start with a small, focused group. They opened the dialogues to students from three residential colleges: the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, the Lyman Briggs College, which focuses on the natural sciences, and the James Madison College, which focuses on social sciences. "It adds considerable depth to a conversation to hear from students from all of these areas," Estry explains. The topic of sustainability and human rights was an obvious choice for the first series of dialogues. "There was already a lot of interest on campus in sustainability, a lot of momentum. The students on the planning committee really wanted to ride that wave," he says.

Student-Focused Dialogues

From the very beginning of the planning process, students were at the center of the 21st-Century Chautauqua. At the first meeting, students worked through the ground rules for the dialogue series. They decided each session would start with "checking in" and end with "checking out"—bookend practices in which every participant would have a chance to add his or her thoughts about what to accomplish that day and how the conversation had gone. Students also discussed how to balance different discussion styles (debates versus dialogues) and how to keep any individual participant from dominating the discussions too much. "We decided that in our Chautauqua, everyone could be a teacher, but everyone must also be a learner," student Melissa Clark explains.

Students prepared for sessions by completing assigned short readings each week. At the beginning of each dialogue, an invited guest (usually a faculty member) made a short presentation using a case study, puzzle, or dilemma as an example, and then opened the floor for discussion. "The students agreed that we'd welcome faculty members as guests," Esquith says. "But they're just that—guests. It's not a lecture. It's a process in which people try to listen to others and understand the merits of their arguments. The faculty weren't disempowered, but they weren't given the kind of authority they are more comfortable with." In one case, a student was concerned about an issue—Michigan State's new Dubai branch, and the human rights of workers there—so the student prepared the presentation and acted as the guest presenter for the week.

Participation in the Chautauqua dialogues is voluntary, although students are asked to commit to the entire semester-long series. About half the students in the sustainability Chautauqua group developed independent study courses around the dialogues and earned credit for their participation, but the noncredit students were equally invested, Estry says. "The students were really committed to these dialogues," he says. "They were dedicated because so much of it came from them. This wouldn't work if we told them what we think they ought to be talking about."

Building a Campus Culture of Responsible Dialogue

The first Chautauqua series ended in spring 2008, but planning began immediately for the next 21st-Century Chautauqua series, planned for fall 2008 and focusing on Martin Luther King Jr. "The idea behind this second Chautauqua series is that we celebrate this holiday, but not enough people are really aware of why," Esquith explains. "It also intersects nicely with issues of race and equality that have been hot spots in the past. We'll have this series of Chautauqua dialogues in fall 2008, and we hope people will be prepared to take the January 2009 King holiday more seriously." Participation will be open to students in MSU's Honors College and College of Music this time, as well as the three residential colleges. "We've already had a lot of interest," Esquith says.

Esquith and Estry and their colleagues are also beginning to work on the framework to develop several classes around the Chautauqua model. Each of the residential colleges already has capstone courses in place, and the Core Commitments Leadership Consortium grant may help imbed issues of personal and social responsibility in these capstones. "It's not so much about the topics as how we interact in a socially responsible way," Estry says.

Clark, who plans to complete degrees in both zoology and agriculture and natural resources communication this year, will also participate in the MLK Chautauqua this fall. "It was really inspiring for me to be part of a group of students who wanted to listen first," she says. "Sometimes students want to just go out and act, but this group wanted to listen before taking action and really respected each other's viewpoints."

Michigan State University