Rutgers President Teaches Course to Cultivate Engaged Citizens and Protect Democracy 

President Holloway in conversation with Rajiv “Raj” Vinnakota
President Jonathan Holloway in conversation with Rajiv “Raj” Vinnakota, president of the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, during the first day of his fall Byrne seminar course.
John Munson/Rutgers University

Jonathan Holloway tackles public discourse and being good citizens with students in Byrne seminar  

When President Jonathan Holloway greeted this year’s incoming students, he urged them to realize they are at Rutgers to do more than just enough to get by. 

“You are here to learn, to wrestle with ideas that are as yet unknown to you, to find your voice, and most importantly, to listen,” he said during the Rutgers University-New Brunswick convocation

Listening to others, he noted, is all about becoming a better thinker and speaker. Listening also is a helpful first step to take when confronted by ideas or speech at the university that may be unsettling or, perhaps, offensive.

“While this will make for a difficult experience at times, the best way I know to get beyond that difficulty is to listen, examine, test, and then prove why that idea or that speech is wrong,” Holloway said. “For me, this is how we elevate ourselves out of the muck and mire that defines this political, social and cultural moment: listening and then speaking.” 

As a university president committed to academic freedom and freedom of speech, Holloway has signed on with other university leaders in the Institute for Citizens & Scholars Campus Call for Free Expression to amplify higher education’s role in preparing young people to be empowered citizens for a strong democracy. To further these principles, Holloway is teaching a Byrne seminar for first-year students this fall on “Citizenship, Institutions, and the Public.” 

The eight-week course examines what it means to be a good citizen and what we should reasonably expect of our institutions. The course will address these questions and more through a series of conversations with distinguished leaders from the corporate, political, nonprofit, media, labor, and faith communities. Rutgers Today talked with Holloway, a U.S. historian, about the course and why he is teaching it now. 

Why is it important at this moment in our country’s history to teach this course? 

I think it’s always important to have students think about civic education: What does the Constitution actually say? What is the role of the citizen in a democracy? What do you mean when we invoke the term “the public”? I do think there is a heightened need for students to wrestle with these questions now because we are living in an age when there is a declining faith in the importance of institutions and where so many of our politicians and political activists seem more committed to yelling at one another and scoring “points” for social media take-downs. There are very strong anti-democratic forces swirling about the country these days. The better informed and educated our citizenry, the better we will all be prepared to push back against the autocratic tides.

What do you want your students to take away from this course? 

I want the students to know that they have a choice in how this country moves forward. If they are able to sharpen their critical thinking skills, they will understand the important role that institutions play in stabilizing society. Those same honed skills will help them understand the role that they can play in engaging those institutions and shaping them to address future needs.

How can we each return to (or reach) a place where we are able to listen to opposing ideas and discuss them reasonably and purposefully? 

I want to say from the start that all of this is hard work. The supercomputers in our hands and the algorithms that channel us toward people with whom we agree, make it more difficult for individuals to get out of their comfortable bubbles and connect with other people or ideas. But this is exactly what we need to do in order to protect our democracy. Furthermore, this is what universities are here to provide: a range of ideas that have existed across time and space that need to be understood and tested. We can start by engaging one another face-to-face (with our smartphones in our pockets), looking for things that we share in common. Once we find those areas of overlapping enthusiasm, the nature of any disagreement will inevitably be different.