Voting Booths
Voting booths
Bold Ideas: Exercising Democracy


Co-leads: Thomas Finholt (Vice Provost for Academic and Budgetary Affairs/Former Dean, School of Information) and Christina Olsen (Director, University of Michigan Museum of Art)

Group members: Mark Clague (School of Music, Theatre, & Dance), Lynette Clemetson (Wallace House), Angela Dillard (College of Literature, Science, and the Arts), Kristin Hass (College of Literature, Science, and the Arts), Ellen Katz (Law School), Ken Kollman (College of Literature, Science, and the Arts), Paul Resnick (School of Information), Hannah Smotrich (Stamps School of Art and Design)

In this current, polarized democracy, how do we reinvigorate civil conversations and increase engagement?

The Challenge

Principles, institutions, and practices of democracy are under assault in the U.S. and elsewhere. While there is broad agreement that we have problems, there is little consensus about what should be done and who should take the lead.

How important is the societal challenge of exercising democracy to you?

The Vision

As a public institution with a rich tradition of community engagement and service, the University of Michigan is uniquely positioned to increase civic engagement and reinvigorate democracy.

First, we want to grow students’ and communities’ knowledge of democratic practices and principles. This is in the spirit of the kind of “civics” instruction that many of us receive in high school, but expanded and updated to reflect contemporary realities of social media, lack of consensus about “facts,” and fierce partisan antagonism.

Second, we want to increase engagement with, and participation in, democratic processes. Most notably, we’ll strive to have a positive impact on voting behavior, where U-M has had past success. Specifically, we have seen dramatic increases in voter participation among students over the past two federal election cycles. 

Third, we want to enhance and restore trust in democratic institutions. This may involve transformation of the institutions themselves.

Finally, we want to improve the quality of public discourse. We believe that technological innovation has been critical in rapidly altering capabilities, norms, and equity in society, often with little public forethought or planning, increasingly leading to stresses in many social, educational, cultural, and political institutions and altering societal norms and values. To ensure a truly just and equitable world, it is critical to better understand the human, ethical, civic, and justice-oriented aspects of rapid technological innovation.

How well does this vision resonate with you?

The Initial Bold Ideas

Exercising Democracy Hub

The future of our country and other democratic societies depends on informed, active, and engaged participants. We have the unique opportunity to teach students how to exercise democracy in their lives after graduation and positively influence members of their communities to regularly rehearse democratic practices. Additionally, we have a responsibility to ensure the university is a space that welcomes the free exchange of diverse ideas and promotes civil discourse in support of democracy. Finally, the arts are critical to exercising democracy. By both making and experiencing art and rehearsing performances, people learn to express and embrace a variety of perspectives—skills crucial to engaging with diverse communities and participating in civil discourse. Through the arts, students and members of the community will be exposed to a range of ideas to interpret, creative processes, and more that will help them see the value of diverse perspectives when exercising democracy in their communities.

Exercising Democracy will mobilize the entire campus over a five year period in ways that encompass academic research projects, faculty-led curricular/co-curricular initiatives, student-led initiatives and organizations, thought-provoking artistic experiences, and artist-driven projects, as well as community-based collaborations that connect the campus and statewide communities. Through an integrated experience, students will participate in courses, experiential learning opportunities, and service learning programs, culminating in a capstone project upon graduation. Incorporating the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion will be central to addressing the democratic obstacles underrepresented communities face. We imagine funding and incubating projects such as:


Democracy Corps

We seek to create a ground-up, campus-wide initiative to prepare students and instill in them democratic habits and skills that are key to being ready to fully participate in democracy, such as listening and engaging with credible sources to learn about the world around them. These would involve community-engaged programs throughout the state of Michigan built collaboratively by faculty and local communities. U-M students would benefit from engaging with a broad range of Michiganders; people throughout the state would better see the University of Michigan as a reliable, consistent, and engaged partner in addressing their own needs. Upon graduation, every U-M student would be equipped with the knowledge, values, skills, and concrete tools to function as an informed, engaged, committed member of society. But every student would also know that graduation marked not an end, but an inflection point, and that participation is a lifelong pursuit.


The fabric of local democracy

The University of Michigan will strengthen our partnerships with local institutions, including libraries, museums, community colleges, and historical societies, to help residents determine and demonstrate the value of democracy in their communities.

The university will leverage sustainable frameworks in place (such as the Ginsberg’s Center’s Connecting Michigan pilot project) to enable U-M contributors to serve as partners who are invested in helping communities find the solutions to their problems. The university will engage in respectful and impactful ways to work in a community-driven manner, not assuming we have the answers, but working collaboratively with a diverse group of community members to explore and research solutions. The following initiatives will foster diverse community partnerships:

Intergenerational democratic engagement. Finding common ground is an important basis for identifying regions of mutual interest and possible compromise when people might otherwise be at odds. A key source of division can be differences in lived experience and orientation, so fostering better and more frequent ways for younger and older people to interact around shared values and interests is important. 

Statewide human library. We aim to foster connections around areas of mutual interest where people with expertise/experience are linked to those who seek expertise/experience. This could be related to hobbies or interests (e.g., home maintenance, quilting, scrapbooking, bird watching), relevant to activism or mobilization (e.g., ensuring pure drinking water), or specific to history (e.g., older people sharing stories with younger people). This would involve a vast expansion of previous municipal-scale “human library” projects. 

Community study. Some of the most important insights about human health and behavior have come from long-term detailed studies of specific communities. This project will focus on a “purple” district of Michigan, with the goal of working with this community to introduce interventions hypothesized to have positive potential, and then collecting evidence to assess interventions. There will be specific benefit to the target community, but generalizable benefit to the extent that findings from the community study could be transplanted to other settings.

At the University of Michigan, we are uniquely positioned to educate students to serve the public good, design models for engaged dialogue, leverage expertise across disciplines, and champion diversity, equity, and inclusion across all facets of our university. The Exercising Democracy hub will house numerous new initiatives and support existing initiatives designed to engage the university and surrounding communities.

Which of the bold ideas in this section spoke to you the most, and why?

Which do you think is least important for us to pursue, and why?

Are there other bold ideas related to this concept that we are missing?

Who are thought leaders in your network that might be interested in providing insights or feedback on this concept?