As the United Nations marks Sept. 15 as its International Day of Democracy, the organization will take the opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world. This year’s theme will focus on the importance of media freedom to democracy, peace and delivering on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Here locally, William & Mary highlights democracy as one of the cornerstone initiatives of its Vision 2026 strategic plan and established its Democracy Initiative to promote a shared sense of purpose in preserving American democracy. W&M Vice President of Student Affairs Ginger Ambler and Dean of University Libraries Carrie Cooper are co-chairs of the initiative.

Next month, W&M President Katherine A. Rowe will host a presidential conversation about democracy and the media during Homecoming & Reunion Weekend featuring distinguished alumni working for such media outlets as CNN, CBS News and The New York Times.

With U.S. mid-term elections upcoming in November and global issues surrounding democracy in the news daily, W&M News asked Ambler and Cooper to update the community on where the Democracy Initiative stands and how to get involved in its upcoming plans.

Q: How has W&M’s Democracy Initiative evolved since its inception? 

Cooper: The W&M Democracy Initiative was founded in spring of 2021, growing out of an understanding that firstly, the nation and the world are approaching a critical junction in terms of the growth cycle of democracy. Secondly, the university occupies a unique position — historically, geographically and intellectually — in that growth cycle. We have strengths and connections that we can call on to help our students and communities foster and bolster democratic engagement.  

The fledgling Democracy Initiative was already in place when William & Mary adopted the work more formally and broadly through the Vision 2026 strategic, five-year plan. In that plan, democracy became a core initiative and point of focus for the entire university enterprise. The Democracy Initiative was already in the lead.

Q: What’s the status of the initiative going into this academic year? 

Cooper: We had a very successful summer hosting a number of activities tied to the initiative. One that I’d like to highlight is the Summer Pre-College Program, hosted by the National Institute of American History & Democracy (NIAHD). For the first time in three years, NIAHD was able to return to their in-person experience serving 112 high school students from across the U.S., giving students an outstanding learning experience supported by William & Mary’s history department and Colonial Williamsburg.  

Ambler: As for this academic year, we have several programs that we are excited about. A book discussion of “Healing the Heart of Democracy” by Parker Palmer is planned for fall 2022 by the Office of Community Engagement. This discussion will be open to students, faculty, staff and Williamsburg community members.

Additionally, every school is being invited to host a Challenging Topic Lecture this academic year, reflecting the vision of the Democracy Initiative — “W&M aspires to be a place where respectful dialogue takes place on challenging topics.” This series models how William & Mary scholars in different disciplines study and communicate about challenging topics.

Lastly, Abby Varricchio, senior government major and student representative on the committee, is planning a campus conversation to discuss the role of civil discourse on a college campus. The event will be held on Sept. 28 at 6:30 p.m. in the Sadler Center‘s Tidewater Room. This will be a great opportunity for students to discuss individual rights and freedom of expression.

Q: What is planned for the future for the initiative? 

Cooper: Our goal is to be the bridge that connects the multitude of activities related to democracy that are happening on campus. There are so many excellent programs that are taking place, and we want to make sure that our students, faculty, staff and surrounding community know about them all.

Q: How can the W&M community become involved with the initiative? 

Ambler: There are many ways to get involved with the initiative. You can participate in one of our many offerings — a campus conversation, a book discussion, etc. Visit our events calendar to see all the ways you can get involved. Those interested can also reach out to Carrie or me to discuss ways to plug into this initiative. We’re always happy to connect with others who are passionate about this topic.  

Q: What else should the community know?

Cooper: Democracy, civil discourse and individual rights are topics that impact everyone. 

Participating in the election process is an important data point related to Vision 2026. William & Mary was listed by Washington Monthly among Best Colleges for Student Voting, based on data from the National Study for Learning, Voting & Engagement (NSLVE). More than 85% of William & Mary students were registered to vote in 2020 according to the NSLVE data.  

Editor’s note: Democracy is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.

, University News & Media