What roles should government take in American life? How can individuals participate in the American civic tradition? And how does the history of American government relate to its role today?
These are foundational questions of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at UCCS, which explores the constitutional, economic, political, and social foundations of American society.
Founded in 2000, the Center is home to several academic programs related to the study of the role of government. The Center’s Program for Preserving a Free and Prosperous Society hosts lectures, supports faculty course development and provides student scholarship funds for research on political and economic liberty. Its Program on Education Policy and Reform generates new research on educational reform, choice, accountability and law, and its Program on the American Constitution is devoted to studying the origins and development of American constitutionalism.
In the past few years, the Center has also focused on political polarization and the importance of civil dialogue to healthy political communities. The focus on tolerance, said Josh Dunn, Professor of Political Science at UCCS and Director of the Center, is key to the Center’s work.
“Through all of our programs, we try to emulate the core purposes of the Center: to explore a variety of positions on important historical, constitutional, economic and social questions related to the role of government in society,” Dunn said. “I think it’s crucial for us to model deliberative virtues such as civility, toleration, critical engagement and mutual respect.”
To learn more, we sat down with Dunn to discuss the mission and vision of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual, and its goals for the future. Read Dunn’s interview below.
1. Describe how and why the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual was started.
The Center for the Study of Government and the Individual (CSGI) was created from 2000 to 2001 and was directed by James Null, who had been the Dean of the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences at UCCS for nearly 20 years. It was supported by members of the community who wanted to explore different positions on the role of government in lives of individuals.
2. How does the Center’s work align with your own background?
My primary area of expertise is public law, with a particular focus on the Constitution and civil rights and liberties. Those fields are, obviously, central to the animating questions the center addresses.
3. Share a project, piece of research or initiative the Center has advanced that you’re proud of.
- Over the past several years, we have hosted events designed to address the increasing polarization and conflict we’ve witnessed, including lectures by John Inazu of Washington University St. Louis, Jonathan Haidt of New York University, and Jon Zimmerman of the University of Pennsylvania. As a university, I think it’s crucial for us to model deliberative virtues such as civility, toleration, critical engagement, and mutual respect — and these kinds of events allow us to reinforce this part of our academic mission.
- Shortly after COVID-19 began, I worked with Dick Carpenter, a professor in the UCCS College of Education, to conduct some of the first systematic quantitative work on how parents evaluated the response of their children’s schools to the pandemic. Between March and December, we conducted a major survey and published a peer reviewed article. Since then, we have done a follow-up survey and published multiple book chapters.
- As part of the CU Board of Regent’s civics initiative, we started the Program on the American Constitution. As part of that program, we are providing professional development seminars for K-12 teachers to advance their knowledge of America’s constitutional and political foundations and history. Unfortunately, we had to launch that program during COVID-19, but we’ve already conducted seminars on the Logic of Liberty, African-American Political Thought, and Civil Rights and Racial Equality.
- We’ve also started an honors program for UCCS undergraduates that assists them financially and enriches their academic experience on campus.
4. What do you see as the next big topic or issue the Center will tackle in the next year?
Expanding the Center’s professional development program for teachers is our biggest project at the moment. We are also hoping to hold a major event with leading political figures across the ideological spectrum from Colorado on the importance of civil dialogue for a healthy political community.
5. What is one of the most surprising things you’ve learned as Center Director?
How long it can take from conceiving of a new initiative to getting it off the ground.
6. Is there a project or program that never got off the ground that you wish you could reignite?
7. What part of the Center’s work most excites or inspires you?
I love the work we do with undergraduates. Ultimately, I think the university exists for the students, and everything we do has some connection to students. That includes providing money to hire students as research assistants to paying for students to attend conferences and programs around the country.
Most importantly, though, we’ve started an honors program which provides a financial award but also requires students to participate in a reading group and attend all Center events. It’s very gratifying to be able to help students financially while also enriching their academic experience and engage with other students from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. In that program, we try to emulate the core purposes of the Center: to explore a variety of positions on important historical, constitutional, economic, and social questions related to the role of government in society. We’ve read a range of both historical and contemporary authors including Xenophon, Hume, Tocqueville, Marx, Hayek, Haidt, Schumpeter and Zizek. We’ve also read essays from The 1619 Project, along with critiques of the project from both the World Socialist Web Site on the left and libertarians on the right.
Prior to COVID-19, we also had the students read books or articles from some of our visiting lecturers and then have the students meet with the speaker. For instance, when Jonathan Haidt came to speak at UCCS, the students had been reading “The Coddling of the American Mind” and were able to have a private discussion with him before his lecture. I think it’s an extraordinary opportunity for students to meet leading scholars from around the country. With COVID — hopefully — becoming more manageable and allowing us to return to on campus events, I’m looking forward to reviving that part of the program.
This article is part of a series of stories of UCCS’ academic centers. You can learn more about the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual online.