The Nexus of Politics and Society

Highlander Discovery Institute’s inaugural event transforms conversation on campus

By Max Esterhuizen, M.S. ’15

During the 90-minute panel, topics were explored from gun control to global warming, polarizing politics and the role of media in society.
During the 90-minute panel, topics were explored from gun control to global warming, polarizing politics and the role of media in society.

When the curtains parted and Katie Couric stepped onto the stage, it was immediately apparent that everyone was in for a special evening dedicated to thought-provoking discussion.

“I’m thrilled to have a measured, reasonable, but lively conversation, hopefully with minimal yelling, at a time when civil discourse in the country sadly seems to be an oxymoron,” Couric said with a smile. “What unifies us has seemed to fade more and more into the background every single day. Unfortunately, I think the current media landscape has only deepened the divide, as consumers often look for affirmation instead of information.”

With that opening, Couric immediately addressed the theme that encompassed the entire inaugural Highlander Discovery Institute event held on September 19, 2019: “Exploring the Nexus of Politics and Society.”

Radford University President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., established the Highlander Discovery Institute, so that the campus and surrounding community could experience new ideas and ways of thinking, specifically in the areas of teaching, research and service.

“The purpose of an institution of higher education and the mission of Radford University are to provide transformative experiences,” President Hemphill said. “We also strive, each and every day, to provide incredible experiences for our students, faculty, staff and the local community. By bringing the community together, we are able to hear different perspectives as one Radford family.”

Serving as an opportunity to see civil discourse in action, the inaugural Highlander Discovery Institute event featured three renowned individuals: Couric as the moderator and Donna Brazile and Ana Navarro as panelists.

“I’m excited to be here with two women I deeply respect, who are on the frontlines of politics and policy every single day — or should I say every single minute in our current 24-hour news cycle,” Couric said.

Transitioning into the panel, she framed the evening’s events with the question, “Is there any room for compromise in this age of extremes?”

During a thought-provoking and inspirational 90-minute discussion, difficult and challenging topics were explored from gun control to global warming, polarizing politics and the role of media in society. Additionally, many cultural wedge issues were brought up, which are issues that are used as a political weapon without any intention of implementing solutions.

Politics isn’t just about winning. It is about leading and governing.  -Donna Brazile

“We look at issues in black and white,” Navarro said. “People play that. Special interest groups play us. That contributes to polarization. There is more common ground among Americans than people think.”

Brazile said that in order to regain the middle ground in politics, our politics should be reformed.

“We have to reimagine government and society, so that it is inclusive of every American regardless of partisanship or political point of view,” Brazile said. “Politics isn’t just about winning. It is about leading
and governing.”

Emphasizing the reimagining of government and the future, Brazile said, “There are too many people on the outskirts of hope. We must bring them back inside the circle of opportunity. We can do more with our time and talent.”

A uniquely modern issue discussed during the event was that of the increasing isolation of human beings. Even as people live closer and
closer together, interactions are becoming increasingly fewer and further between.

“We are becoming more isolated as human beings. So many people are living virtual lives,” Navarro said. “They don’t go outside and speak to people, who look different or think different or eat different. They just stay inside and want to consume what they already believe in. It’s hard to fight that.”

People are working with their heads down, Brazile said. “They aren’t talking to one another. It is our responsibility as citizens to do more. That is what it means to be in
a democracy.”

“I think that it is only getting worse and something that we have to deal with as a society, but also as individuals,” Couric said. “We have to take responsibility for ourselves.”

Following the inspired Highlander Discovery Institute panel, various discussions were held to further the evening’s transformative experience in nearby Young Hall. The discussions invoked all academic aspects from across Radford University, such as “Social Media and Politics,” “America’s Role in the World,” “Transformative Politics of the Arts” and “The Political Landscape in Virginia.”

Starr Woods, a School of Communication senior from Richmond, Virginia, thought that the experience was “absolutely amazing.”

Highlander Discovery Institute’s Icon

“As someone who is in the public relations field, I admire women who get onstage and proclaim what they believe in. It spoke to me,” Woods said. “We talked about fake news in the discussion I attended after the event. We talked about how media can control and frame issues.”

John Purcell, from Roanoke, Virginia, is a history and social science major who enjoyed the approach of the event — an approach that
signaled unity and common ground among Americans.

“If you aren’t talking about things, no ideas are shared,” Purcell said. “Then, socially and culturally, you come to a standstill. I think that is extremely dangerous to politics. You must be able to share ideas with each other and work together.”

In the weeks and months that followed the inaugural Highlander Discovery Institute event, professors and students alike continued the conversation, using the panel discussion as a spark to ignite their in-class discussions.

“I have noticed students in my international studies classes asking ‘bigger questions’ on the role of U.S. power abroad and a willingness to engage their peers in these conversations,” said Iuliia Hoban, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of political science. “I also noticed students are more inquisitive about some of the subjects discussed during the events, such as immigration and
climate change.”

Those interactions and discussions “illustrate what informed political discourse in a democratic society looks like,” said Department Chair and Professor of Political Science Tanya Corbin, Ph.D.

“Students in political science are quite eager to have these discussions, and I am consistently impressed with the level of civility and respect with which they conduct their discussions,” Corbin said. “Political science is continuing to sponsor and promote events conducted in the spirit of the Highlander Discovery Institute event, such as the immigration panel, discussions about constitutional questions and similar community and campus events, that continue to foster civic discussion and learning and create a culture of healthy democratic habits of discussion and deliberation.”

Scott Dunn, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Communication, said that it is important for college students to engage in conversations about topics such as these.

“College is a place where you should open your mind to different points of view,” Dunn said. “The more people only read and listen to what they agree with, well, that is not how democracy works. We need to be able to talk across political lines.”

Dec 10, 2019
Max Esterhuizen, M.S. ’15