2013 Brigance Forum Lecture: “Education and Democracy: How School Boards Use Deliberation to Build Trust.”

By Matt Michaloski ‘14

The Rhetoric Department invited Dr. Robert Asen of the University of Wisconsin-Madison to present at the annual Brigance Forum Lecture this past Wednesday. The purpose of the event is to bring prominent scholars in the field of rhetoric to Wabash to share their insights about the discipline.  Dr. Asen chose to speak Wednesday evening about the importance of trust in a democratic community and the methods that work for effective deliberation.

Our guest was introduced by senior rhetoric major Garrett Wilson, who welcomed the audience and listed Dr. Asen’s accomplishments (for details, see the previous blog entry). He then yielded the podium to Dr. Asen, who offered gratitude to the college and honor to the late Dr. W. Norwood Brigance, former Wabash Professor, the namesake of the event, and important scholar in the field.

Dr. Asen began his speech by calling attention to a major problem: declining trust in our government and neighbors as evidenced by less willingness for volunteering, charity, and public service. He reminded us that trust is a binding force in a democratic community and that we should find this trend alarming.

He argued in his lecture that deliberation, when done properly, is a powerful tool for building trust. This fact was clearly illustrated by a study that Dr. Asen led called the Research on Education, Deliberation, and Decision-Making Project. He and his team visited more than 100 School Boards and conducted interviews to discuss a number of things that included “board dynamics” and “district culture” – all in an effort to learn more about the deliberative process. Dr. Asen wanted to draw special attention to the fact that nearly all of the projects’ interviewees mentioned the importance of having “trust” between their board members, and they all did so spontaneously. This evidence suggests that those whose job it is to deliberate with others and make group decisions do in fact recognize that trust is critically important to success. Through the course of his interviews, Dr. Asen came to identify four particular qualities that the members thought needed to be present in order for deliberation to build trust among participants: flexibility, forthrightness, engagement, and heedfulness. The bulk of the lecture was devoted to explaining the precise meanings of these terms and how they improve the process.

Flexibility, he believes, involves a willingness to gather new information and to allow that more information might bring about better decisions. Deliberation, he argues, is pointless if each of the deliberators walks into the room with his or her mind set on one decision. Only if each member recognizes their responsibility to search for the best solution, whether or not it’s their own, will the best solution be reached.

Forthrightness is the second feature of deliberation that builds trust, and it seems to resemble what we mean when we use the words “honesty” and “transparency.” Good deliberators need to share all of their information, and they need to disclose their opinions. If there is a sense that other members are hiding information, then flexible and effective deliberation can’t possibly take place.

Dr. Asen’s third quality is engagement. A deliberative meeting must involve a real exchange of ideas. If the process becomes too routine, then the discussion breaks down into a sort of ritual that will not go far in discovering new and better solutions to problems. The School Board members expressed a desire to use their meeting time to discover the crux of issues affecting them and to lay bare the sources of disagreement among them. This requires a degree of engagement from all members and a belief that discussion meetings are more than formalities.

Heedfulness is the last quality that Dr. Asen highlighted. This means a perception that the group’s decision will be adhered to by participants. The sharing of ideas becomes an empty process if there is a sense that it will not result in an outcome or if the decision has already been made. The incentive to contribute to a deliberation is the belief that one’s insights will be taken into consideration and that one can actually participate in the search for optimal solutions. Those who feel that they are attending meetings with foregone conclusions are not likely to contribute to good deliberation.

Dr. Asen’s lessons on deliberation need not be limited to the context of School Board meetings. The methods of good discussion and of fostering trust were no doubt helpful pieces of information for many of the Wallies in the attendance who can put these principles into practice in discussion courses, fraternity meetings, and perhaps beyond. The forum ended with Dr. Asen taking questions from the audience. Several thoughtful questions asked involved the effect of the public space where meeting took place on the dynamics of the discussion and the effect of different kinds of audiences on discussions.

The event was met with a good turnout, good engagement from the audience (which included the distinguished professor emeritus Dr. O’Rourke), and a bustling post-lecture reception. I trust that next year’s presentation will continue the tradition of stimulating lectures and large student interest that have marked these past few which I have had the pleasure of attending.

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