I just got done reading Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee's message to faculty.


Late in the speech (about 3/4 of the way down the page) he makes a call for the university to lead a charge for a return to civility in today's national discussions. I see much of what he refers to on these boards as well as print, television and radio media. Not to mention message boards of every type.

The need for a national common conversation has never been more acute. The signs are all around us. The profusion of fractious talk radio and bias disguised as cable news. Costume parties that provide great televised spectacle, but reflect a poor understanding of our country's history. And national leaders spouting violent metaphors instead of well-reasoned dissent.

The danger in all of this is great: More heat than light, and more bite than right.

I want to be clear that I see this as a pervasive problem involving the entire political spectrum. The bilious, the vitriolic, and the false choices do nothing but inspire more of the same. Nothing of consequence is said, and no one could be properly heard if it were. As a result, the frustration and the volume escalate, perpetuating an echo-cycle of sound bytes and cynicism.

Out of that din, we who are engaged in the business of ideas must have the clarity of purpose to understand both our possibilities and our responsibilities. We must be mindful of our public universities' central role in a democratic nation founded upon the wholly connected ideals of individual accountability, collective action, and informed debate.

We cannot sit idly by and bemoan the baleful effects of a society that does not discuss issues of importance. We cannot passively wait for the system to be remade. That is not democracy.

One of our roles as a great public university, set in the middle of this country, is to foster a robust national dialog. In recognizing the great need ? and our unique ability to fill it ? we can set a new cultural standard and become the most prominent resource for serious, multifaceted discussion.

What I am suggesting is not about sanctimoniously capturing the moral high ground. It is about taking the initiative to create here the epicenter of the nation's new intellectual infrastructure. One that is committed to civility and to service for the greater good.

As always, the University's breadth is its signal strength. You possess immense expertise in your own right, and you are connected with people of like talent and wisdom around the globe who could contribute to discussions as well.

Think about the incalculable value of a public forum on immigration that incorporates historic, economic, legal, demographic, business, and sociological perspectives. And how might our nation have profited from a real-time symposium on health care that included experts in clinical care, politics, economics, finance, insurance, law, psychology, and other pertinent fields?

Assuming national leadership in reviving civil conversation is a nearly Augean task, to be sure. (And, yes, to my friends in Classics and Greek history: The comparison with Heracles' fifth and filthy labor is fully intentional!)

My point is this: We cannot allow the diatribe and venom to shackle our nation's progress. Our University was founded to enlarge individual opportunity, improve our communities, and sustain democracy through expanded understanding. Given that starting point, doing nothing is ? to my mind ? an abdication of our institution's noble purposes.