On Post

VMI Leads the Way in Civil Discourse in Higher Education

female cadet speaking into a microphone with audience seated in a circle around her

VMI has embraced the national College Debates and Discourse Program and was named one of 10 colleges and universities in the country to take part in the program’s Community of Practice through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.—Photo courtesy VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics.

In a publication titled “The VMI Leader Journey,” VMI states one of its core leadership principles is that cadets will demonstrate respect for self and civility toward others. To that end, the college has embraced the national College Debates and Discourse Program, an alliance of Braver Angels, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and Bridge USA.VMI has held numerous moderated debates on post since 2021. In January 2023, VMI was named one of 10 colleges and universities in the country to participate in the program’s Community of Practice through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

At VMI, the debates are organized in partnership with the Center for Leadership and Ethics and the Building BRIDGES club. Four cadets who underwent an application process and subsequent training to become student debate fellows in the program are joined by three faculty fellows in planning the debates. These debates are not competitive but are held in a light parliamentary format that encourages respectful discussion and listening around a divisive or controversial topic. Participants address their comments to the trained debate chair, thereby avoiding personalization of clashing viewpoints. The purpose is not to change minds but to enlighten and demonstrate how to disagree thoughtfully and respectfully.

Past debate topics include women in combat roles; social media; the cadet athlete/non-athlete divide; and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

While these debates have become popular within VMI, the debate fellows decided to introduce this effective method of tackling controversial issues to their peers at the three nearby colleges: Washington and Lee University, Southern Virginia University, and Mountain Gateway Community College, with an intercollegiate debate held Nov. 28, 2023, at VMI. Potential topics were presented to the schools via a survey and a discussion on banning controversial books in K-12 schools was chosen.

More than 100 participants from the four colleges gathered for the debate. Doug Sprei, ACTA’s campus partnerships vice president and College Debates and Discourse Alliance director, held the gavel as the debate chair and laid out the ground rules, encouraging the participants to express their viewpoints and embrace widening their perspectives. Speakers had three to four minutes to make their argument, followed by questions from the audience directed to the chair, without using the second-person “you” pronoun.

“We are all in a brave space together,” Sprei said. “Everyone here is invited into a conversation in which no one’s opinion cancels out another’s.” He noted that this intercollegiate debate was the first of its kind in the country within the College Debates and Discourse Alliance. “VMI has become a vibrant, self-sustaining community of practice in our program, and its initiative in introducing Braver Angels debates and civil discourse to other colleges in the surrounding area is exemplary for the nation.”

four cadets standing in a row, smiling

Cadets Isabella Bruzonic ’25, Jillian Hall ’24, Devin Thomas ’24, and Earl Filgo ’25 are cadet fellows in the debate program.—VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

During the debate, speakers shared their perspectives on banning books in K-12 schools, often including personal anecdotes. There was discussion on the meaning of “controversial” and also “ban.” As the evening progressed, it seemed that overall bans of books in a school system were less popular than determining age appropriateness and limiting certain books to older grades.

“I have never in my life been involved in such a thought-provoking discussion, getting to understand the ideas and thoughts of not only other VMI cadets but also students from SVU, Washington and Lee, and Mountain Gateway. Braver Angels has helped me gain a new perspective on discussion and communication in my generation,” said Cadet Isabella Bruzonic ’25, one of the student fellows. “I got to hear perspectives I would have never thought of. I gained respect for the people who were willing to have a conversation without anger and animosity; it was a pure conversation that was purely educational.”

One of the speakers was a student from Southern Virginia University. “I was grateful for the opportunity to speak my mind candidly in an environment where candid opinions were welcomed,” said Jared Smith. “During this time of political and ideological polarization in America, we need more events like these! We have the freedom of speech in America, but it hardly serves our society if we do not implement the structure and activities that give people the opportunity to exercise it productively and peacefully.”

“I felt that with this event, we built bridges between the four schools, and I hope that this is the first of many intercollegiate events,” said Col. Valentina Dimitrova-Grajzl, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Economics and Business and one of the faculty fellows. “I am very proud of the work of our VMI College Debates and Discourse team and the collaboration with our partners at the other three schools.”

Cadet Devin Thomas ’24, another one of the student fellows, echoed that opinion, stating that he thought the debate formed a bond among the greater Lexington college student community that VMI’s College Debates and Discourse fellows can build upon with future events. At least one more debate was planned for the spring semester, as well as smaller lunchtime debates chaired by the cadet fellows. The alliance also offers training in classroom debates.

“It is our hope that with this initial intercollegiate effort, our peers at our local colleges will decide to introduce this format within their own schools,” said Lt. Col. Kim Connolly, Center for Leadership and Ethics assistant director for programs and conferences, and another debates faculty fellow. “We all benefit from the experience of how we can have civil discourse on divisive topics. It is truly transformative.”

In addition to Thomas and Bruzonic, the other student fellows at VMI are Cadets Jillian Hall ’24 and Earl Filgo ’25. Lt. Col. Sara Whipple, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, is a faculty fellow. Partners from the other colleges who made this event happen are Fran Elrod and Tim Diette from Washington and Lee, Iana Konstantinova from SVU, and Suzanne Ostling and Robert Short from MGCC.

  • Lt. Col. Kim Connolly enter for Leadership and Ethics Assistant Director for Program and Conferences