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Campus Spotlight: Weber State’s Deliberative Democracy Day

By Leah Murray, Associate Professor, Political Science and Philosophy and ADP Campus Co-Coordinator, Weber State University

Weber State University, located in Ogden, Utah, is a comprehensive public University that serves a dual mission – as an open-enrollment community college for Northern Utah as well as a regional university offering a full range of baccalaureate and masters degrees. The Academic Affairs and Student Affairs divisions at Weber State University co-manage the American Democracy Project, which reflects a larger institutional commitment to a strong division partnership. Weber State University’s Deliberative Democracy Day is one model of that management, although we run all of our programming in this manner.

In 2009, Weber State University hosted its first Deliberative Democracy Day. The process begins in student government when student senators choose a topic they would like to deliberate. Each of the four times we have hosted Deliberative Democracy Day, the students chose a difficult topic: immigration reform, education access, health care reform and gay marriage. Once a topic is selected, a committee of faculty experts in the field is convened to plan the day. The committee, in conversation with students, chooses a slate of panelists who will come and be available to answer questions from students. The committee also creates a list of interesting questions that students will discuss before hearing from the panel. A number of students are trained as focus group leaders and they facilitate conversation about the topic. On the day, students arrive planning to spend four to five hours together engaged in intense deliberation about an important political issue. This deliberation begins with focus groups and ends with asking questions of the expert panel.

Faculty discuss same-sex marriage and its possible effects on democracy during Weber State University’s Deliberative Democracy Day.

This past year, the students chose gay marriage, which in Utah is banned. Student senators wanted to discuss the effects of gay marriage on society. Previous to the day, we surveyed students for their opinions and then we surveyed students who attended Deliberative Democracy Day. We examined the difference between the students who attended Deliberative Democracy Day and the general student population. Due to respondent identification issues, we cannot claim student opinion change, but we can claim a difference between the groups. As you see from Figure 1 below, students who attended the Deliberative Democracy day indicated a more favorable attitude toward same sex marriage than by students who did not attend.

Another feature of Deliberative Democracy Day is that an upper division Community-Based Learning political science methods course collaborated with the American Democracy Project to study the survey results and presented the research at an end of year symposium. As a result, information from our Deliberative Democracy Day was disseminated to a wider University audience while also serving to train political science majors.

Our student senators are currently debating the topic for 2013. Once they choose, we will begin the process. We also plan on resolving our respondent identification issues so we can demonstrate student opinion change on this year’s topic as a result of participating in Deliberative Democracy Day.

Figure 1. Do you think allowing same sex marriage will change our society for the better, it will have no effect, or for the worse?

Read more about Weber’s 2012 Deliberative Democracy Day here.

Learn more about ADP at Weber State University here.

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