New campus initiative focuses on ‘maintaining civility while engaging in dialogue’ during election

As tensions rise across the country amid the upcoming presidential election, President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Dean of Students Mark Blackburn sent emails to the student body encouraging members of the campus community to take part in the With Malice Toward None initiative with the goal of maintaining a positive and respectful environment on campus.

As part of the initiative, students, faculty and staff have the opportunity to sign a pledge that they will “maintain civility” during and after the election process and refrain from holding “hate, disdain, or ridicule for those who voted differently” from them. 

The Rev. Ann Rosendale has been involved in organizing the initiative on campus. She said she believes signing the pledge allows students and staff to “consider how they might be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.”

Although Rosendale was no more worried about tensions on Augie’s campus than tensions in the rest of the world, she considers signing the pledge a way to obviate possible tensions and to be the first step in “unifying our campus and our community, rather than dividing it.” 

According to Rosendale, more than 250 Augustana students, faculty and staff have signed the pledge so far. 

Senior Sheldon Jensen, a member of the initiative’s planning team, said he is excited to take this first step in signing the pledge, as he believes it is a way of acknowledging that he, and other members of the Augie community, are able to facilitate real, positive change. 

“Change comes from recognizing that the person next to you is a human being and brings something to the table,” Jensen said. “And that’s what this program is about.”

Although the pledge itself is specific to the Augustana community, With Malice Toward None is a nationwide initiative introduced by the Braver Angels, a nonprofit created to address increasing political polarization in the United States. 

The Braver Angels website says With Malice Toward None prioritizes civil discussion and working collectively to “heal” the nation in the midst of a particularly polarizing election. With Malice Toward None encourages people of different political affiliations to participate in respectful conversations that allow them to foster understanding and fellowship. 

The university is planning to hold three events on campus, before and after the election, encouraging the kind of constructive discussion Braver Angels models. 

The first event, to be held Saturday, Oct. 24, will involve small group discussion between people with differing political beliefs, focusing on addressing stereotypes of political parties as well as recognizing shared ideals. 

“Augustana as a community is well positioned to model this kind of civil discourse for our city and for our nation, […]” Rosendale said. “College campuses are really rich and fertile ground for having civil conversation, robust conversation, conversation where we don’t always agree, but where that is okay because we can learn from each other.” 

While senior Kale Hellman believes these events demonstrate a “valiant effort to try and understand other people’s opinions,” she is not planning to sign the pledge. Even though the conversation is intended to be civil, Hellman believes these discussions have the potential to allow for “people with some really unsavory opinions that violate the existence of others to go unchecked.” 

In order to ensure people feel safe during these events, Hellman suggests the university make a statement in advance in which they “blatantly state the difference between having a political opinion and spreading hate or prejudice.” 

“Not every opinion is one that we should accept,” she said.

Rosendale said that the decision to sign the pledge can be a tough one. But she feels that it is an important one.

“I understand that it is risky to ask people to do this,” Rosendale said. “I understand that it is asking people to be vulnerable, and that it’s hard […] nothing that’s worth doing is easy. And this is really worth doing.” 

According to Rosendale, without having moderated and intentionally empathetic discussions, “we risk vilifying each other, and then hurting each other in the process.”

“We really have nothing to lose and everything to gain if we come to the table and talk to one another,” she said.

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