Finley: Oakland seeks to be most civil campus

Oakland University has an ambitious goal: to be the most civil and civically engaged campus in the nation.

“It’s going to make us stand out as an institution,” says David Dulio, a political science professor and director of OU’s Center for Civic Engagement. “We started looking at this during the 2016 election, which brought the issue of civility in politics to a head. That Americans were not really able to talk to each other really worried me.”

At the same time, Dulio noticed the civics IQ of his students was on the decline.

“One semester, in a class of 80 to 100 students, I gave them the citizenship test,” he says. “Sixty percent didn’t pass and would not have been able to become U.S. citizens. That jolted me.”

So Dulio, with the support of the Oakland administration, started a formal effort to make students more aware of politics and how their government works.

The Rochester-based university has staged 50 campus-wide events over the past five years, including a mock Iowa-style caucus and debates on pressing issues such as abortion. They also host candidate debates and will be the site of the second and final gubernatorial debate Tuesday between Democratic incumbent Gretchen Whitmer and Republican challenger Tudor Dixon.

Civic engagement goes hand-in-hand with civility, Dulio says. The university is bucking a distressing trend in higher engagement to close campuses to viewpoints that run against the prevailing opinions of faculty and students.

He invites both progressives and conservatives to OU, and encourages students to exchange ideas with those with whom they disagree.

“I insist on viewpoint diversity,” Dulio says. “It is a bad thing for higher education, for democracy, that certain viewpoints are not permitted or shied away from.

“If a college campus can’t be a place where different ideas can come to the table for discussion, then we’re lost.”

The center has developed a list of tenets for civility that include, “Employ honest listening”; “Support free and open discourse”; and “Consider viewpoints other than your own.”

“We don’t want them to back away from important issues, but rather to provide them with a place where they can have these conversations the right way, in a civil, deliberative and productive manner,” Dulio says.

Tuesday, Oakland is hosting its first-ever Civility Day, a workshop on how to have a civil conversation on any subject. Stephen Henderson and I are presenting our Great Lakes Civility Project, which seeks to break down the barriers to civil discourse.

Other speakers include U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, and Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, members of Congress’ bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus along with local religious and civic leaders.

Sponsors include Delta Dental Plan of Michigan and Huntington Bank.

I’d love to see you there.

For information and to register, visit