The small, classically pillared bank building at the center of the little town of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, could be the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan in Bedford Falls from the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But it’s at the center of revolutionary new trends emerging in American higher education.
The new headquarters of the Open Discourse Coalition (ODC) was established this spring by Bucknell University alumni to support innovative programming for the nearby campus, and will feature seminar rooms, space for receptions and talks, and offices for student and faculty research. The goal: Encourage viewpoint diversity and civil discussion on campus about the “great books” of the liberal arts tradition, at a university where faculty and staff increasingly seem to many students to only advocate for one set of extreme ideological views.
“We want to open up higher education to new ideas and not let it stagnate in static ideology, to prepare students adequately for a dynamic twenty-first century ahead,” explains Allison Kasic, an alumna involved in the project, which has seen initial financial support from alumni in the seven figures since its launch in November 2020. The alumni involved include a former chair of Bucknell’s Board of Trustees, Judge Susan Crawford, and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone.
Among innovative projects underway sponsored by ODC:
- A non-credit leadership seminar in the fall by a Bucknell professor emeritus and former Goldman Sachs general partner and naval officer, whose courses earned rave reviews from generations of alumni, with grants for students who successfully complete it.
- Support for paradigm-shifting student research, faculty curricular development, and faculty work that comes under attack by colleagues for ideas at odds with conventional campus political wisdom.
- Speaker programming featuring dialogues and thoughtful viewpoints on issues often excluded from campus.
Through an on-campus faculty association founded in 2017 and now supported by ODC, the Bucknell Program for American Leadership and Citizenship (BPALC), courses have already been developed that reflect the coalition’s vision. They include topics such as totalitarian studies, the Bible as literature, and American identity explored through diverse music and writing.
This past academic year, with ODC support, BPALC has hosted speakers that included: the differing views about systemic racism of black scholars Shelby Steele and John Fountain, a panel on how to include class issues in campus diversity efforts featuring economist Glenn Loury and former Smith College staffer Jodi Shaw, and a Lincoln Day talk on Abraham Lincoln’s legacy today for a divided America by historian Wilfred McClay. Before the ODC was established, BPALC invited speakers ranging from conservative Princeton University professor Robert George to former Students for a Democratic Society president Todd Gitlin.
Concerned with national trends in American higher education away from the liberal arts tradition and exclusively toward activist causes such as the Green New Deal, critical race theory, and Antifa-style activism, many students welcome these efforts at Bucknell, which encourage neither right nor left but varied views.
“It’s good to have support for dialogue and critical thinking and a solid base in the liberal arts,” said Isabella Carrega, a Hispanic senior at Bucknell who is majoring in literary studies and classics, and is working now as a student fellow for the coalition.
Not everyone in the activist liberal college town of Lewisburg is happy with the new arrival on Market Street, which has featured other efforts more exclusively on the left in the past. Recently a banner was put up across the front of the new ODC building (which is across the street from the Bucknell office building) by anonymous vandals. The sign read “Center for White Victimhood” and included the Home Depot logo, in reference to Langone’s involvement in ODC. A police investigation is underway, but supporters of viewpoint diversity say the work goes on.
“While we certainly appreciate welcome gifts, we would prefer them not come in the form of vandalism,” commented Bucknell alumna Denise Chaykun Weaver, ODC’s interim chief operating officer. “We really like the Home Depot logo but felt the overall message was lacking in creativity and intellectual forethought, so we took it down. It was too off-brand—ODC is anything but typical and boring, like the sign.
“We’re about allowing different views to be examined critically, and that’s what a university education in America today needs to be about,” she continued. “Disagreement is welcome, but we want to foster a community where it’s done civilly.”