For many people younger than 50, who grew up without the threat posed by the Soviet Union, and with Western-style democracies increasingly the model worldwide, the rise of authoritarianism around the world is a stark reminder that democracy itself can be imperiled. After the tragic events of August 2017, the University responded with a bold idea: the Democracy Initiative, a cross-University effort to establish UVA as the preeminent global center for the rediscovery, renewal, and realization of democracy in the 21st century.
Led by the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, in collaboration with schools across Grounds, and with the support of the Miller Center, the Democracy Initiative incorporates teaching, research, and engagement with public affairs to position UVA—and Charlottesville—as the place where academic leaders and practitioners from government, the military, the nonprofit community, business, and other sectors, come together to advance the idea of democracy. Grounding the initiative will be a rotating series of Democracy Labs focusing on a range of challenges and questions. The first two have been announced (Religion, Race, and Democracy and Corruption Laboratory for Ethics, Accountability, and the Rule of Law) and others, including a permanent core lab focusing on the philosophy and principles of democracy, will be announced in the coming months.
“What happened on August 11 and 12 is obviously bigger than UVA and Charlottesville, but we, nonetheless, have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to help chart a better path forward.”
—James E. Ryan, President
To realize this vision, the University has appointed Melody Barnes as the initiative’s co-director. Barnes, a Professor of Practice at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, as well as a Distinguished Fellow at the School of Law, served as assistant to the president and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council during President Obama’s first term. She also worked for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee and served as his chief counsel.
Barnes will be joined by a co-director for academic affairs based in the College who is tasked with developing the research and academic side of the initiative. This person will ensure, in Barnes’s words, the Initiative’s “academic heft,” drawing intellectual resources from across UVA’s schools and the College’s departments, such as politics, history, media studies, arts, and religious studies. “This as an opportunity to weave together the University’s vast scholarly assets and enhance the student learning experience while considering challenging questions about democracy and today’s distressing domestic and global trends,” she said. “The co-director will be someone who can shape our ambitious research agenda.”
Barnes’s appointment signals that the initiative will have a foundation in both academia and public policy. “This work will not sit on a shelf,” she said. “We’ll build relationships with those who shape the policies, practices, and norms that determine the viability—and vibrancy—of democracy.”
On May 21-23, the Miller Center and the Democracy Initiative, with the support of other institutes and schools across Grounds, will host the Presidential Ideas Festival, the first in a series of biennial world democracy forums. It will bring together political insiders, top scholars, and students and will feature working sessions about specific aspects of the presidency and global leadership. “‘Prezfest’ will be a significant forum for policymakers, practitioners, the public and the UVA community to meet in Charlottesville and discuss some of the most important questions before us today,” said Barnes. “It will feature high-profile speakers from presidential administrations going back to Reagan, as well as journalists, award-winning authors and scholars, and domestic and international nongovernment organization leaders. There will be something for everyone while crisscrossing ideological lines.”
“I believe UVA is the best place to do this work at this moment,” she continued. “Cognizant of our past and present, the University and the surrounding community are asking questions relevant to democracy at home and abroad. At a critical moment, UVA has chosen to play a game-changing role, illuminating the path forward.”
Give to the Democracy Initiative
To launch the initiative, 17 generous donors together committed a total of $12.9 million in gifts, enabling the initiative to receive $10 million in matching funds from the University’s Strategic Investment Fund.
To realize its goal of a $100 million endowment to sustain the program, the Democracy Initiative will need investments for:
- Endowed professorships and research funds
- Visiting practitioners and faculty
- Postdoctoral fellows
- Undergraduate forums
- Experiential learning opportunities for students
- An endowment for a biennial democracy summit and an annual democracy forum