Vice-Chancellor Pearigen joins 60 other college presidents to advance civic preparedness and uphold free expression on U.S. campuses


SEWANEE, TENNESSEE April 19, 2024 – Recognizing this urgent moment for American higher education and our democracy, the University of the South’s Vice-Chancellor and President Rob Pearigen is joining 60 other college presidents of diverse institutions from across the country to advance higher education’s pivotal role in preparing students to be engaged citizens and to uphold free expression on campus.

Through College Presidents for Civic Preparedness, a unique consortium designed by the presidents and convened by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, participating presidents are dedicated to preparing the next generation of well-informed, productively engaged, and committed citizens; defending free expression, civil discourse, and critical inquiry as essential civic norms; and increasing thoughtful engagement and better understanding by students for the effective functioning of our democracy. The consortium, first announced with 15 members in August 2023, has grown significantly, demonstrating momentum for this movement.

Participating presidents will take campus-specific and collective action, reflecting three shared Civic Commitments:

  • Educating for democracy is central to our mission.
  • We will prepare our students for a vibrant, diverse, and contentious society.
  • We will protect and defend free inquiry.

Taken together, these fresh commitments embrace both free speech and diversity, two values often pitted against each other, by instead emphasizing meaningful engagement and inquiry with different voices and viewpoints. The commitments stress diversity as a strength of both American democracy and campus life and affirm the truth-seeking role of higher education through curiosity and inquiry. They also enable campus leaders to take substantive action to promote democratic engagement among students, with public accountability for progress through publication of an annual impact report.

“In and outside the classroom, the free and open and honest exchange of ideas is imperative. Our students, and we in the faculty, administration, and staff, must seize upon this time to promote freedom of thought and expression, to embrace challenges to our assumptions, and to be exemplars of civil discourse, even with views we doubt or oppose,” said Pearigen. “The College Presidents for Civic Preparedness consortium is a component of the University’s efforts to foster productive dialogue and civic preparedness.”

Presidents are developing campus-specific programming to advance the Civic Commitments in 2024, including new courses, outside speakers, student orientations, presidential speeches, technology tools, and voter education initiatives. A complete listing appears on the consortium website. At Sewanee, planned programming includes:

  • The Dinner & Dialogue project, the signature event of the Dialogue Across Difference program in the Office of Civic Engagement, connects students, faculty, and staff from across the University for a meal and respectful dialogue. The April 2024 event included a forum on free expression and campus inclusion.
  • A Civic and Global Leadership certificate in the College of Arts and Sciences in addition to courses such as Public Dialogue and Deliberation, and Argumentation and Debate.
  • Sewanee Night Owls, a venue for informal, late-night philosophical discussions of interesting and controversial topics. Everyone is welcome to attend, and no prior experience of philosophy is required. A recent topic: Is there a conflict between faith and reason

In addition to championing these commitments on our own campuses, the presidents will undertake together and through the institute a set of collective actions:

  • Meet regularly and confidentially for peer learning and the exchange of information, ideas, practices, and tools, including on such topics as the 2024 elections and student activism.
  • Help faculty engage effectively with free expression and civil discourse in the classroom by participating in the Faculty Institute on Dialogue Across Difference.
  • Create and seize opportunities for shared advocacy and public outreach on civic preparedness in higher education.

“Higher education has a responsibility to provide students with critical civic skills and knowledge to participate effectively in our constitutional democracy,” said Rajiv Vinnakota, president of the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, a nonprofit that cultivates talent, ideas, and networks that develop young people as effective, lifelong citizens. “College campuses are among the most diverse spaces in our country, and college is an important time for students to develop the habits, practices, and norms to live in a multicultural and interconnected democracy. Doing so can create a ripple effect, making young people more optimistic and increasingly committed about their future and our nation.”

College Presidents for Civic Preparedness has been supported by ECMC Foundation, Einhorn Collaborative, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, One8 Foundation, Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Lumina Foundation, Charles Koch Foundation, and Teagle Foundation, with individual campuses providing support for their own related projects.