Johns Hopkins receives $150 million pledge to establish forum for civil discussion

The Johns Hopkins University will establish a forum for the civil discussion of divisive issues with a $150 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

The university will use the gift to open the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute, which will serve as a center for public discourse and the exchange of ideas in the spirit of the agora of ancient Athens.

"The rise in division, distrust and alienation presents a daunting and urgent challenge," Hopkins President Ronald Daniels said in a statement. "Cutting-edge research across a range of disciplines — coupled with a commitment to strengthen civic dialogue — can give us new insight into these trends and new opportunities for productive policy-making and problem-solving."

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, based in Athens, Greece, works to promote arts and culture, education, health and social welfare around the world. Stavros Niarchos was a Greek shipping magnate who died in 1996 and left his estate to form the foundation.

"We are very excited to partner with Johns Hopkins and strongly believe in the importance of civil discourse, informed leadership, and the role of educational institutions in restoring a more fair and productive democracy," said Andreas Dracopoulos, co-president of the foundation, in a statement.

The foundation has funded projects at Hopkins for more than 20 years. Recently, the foundation donated $5 million to restore Baltimore's Parkway Theatre, home of the Maryland Film Festival.

The institute will be housed in a new building on Hopkins' Homewood campus and the school will recruit a director and 10 professors to staff its re-creation of the agora of ancient Athens.

The agora served as an open forum and marketplace for ideas and goods. It was the heart of ancient Athens' democratic government and has become a symbol for civility, knowledge and community.

"The connection to the Greek agora makes this particularly profound for us, since the agora was the heart of civic life, a common space for people to coexist as citizens rather than individuals," Dracopoulos said.

At a time when Americans are deeply divided over political and social issues and public discourse has turned increasingly hostile and, at times, even violent on college campuses and elsewhere, universities across the country are searching for ways to topple the barriers that interfere with open dialogue and civil debate, said Ann Duncan, co-director of the Center for Geographies of Justice, which offers the Peace Studies program at Goucher College. The program was founded on the belief that peaceful differences of opinion may enrich understanding.

"With the change in political discourse, we're seeing a lot of walls going up," Duncan said. "Students are going to encounter people from different political, religious and ideological perspectives, whatever their chosen profession is, and they need to be able to communicate across those difference."

Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute – Baltimore, which also works to promote civil debate, said the new center at Hopkins will benefit all of Baltimore.

"We would love to partner with this effort," she said. "We know that a good democracy is inclusive, that means being open to new ideas. From those new ideas, we often can come up with innovation and different approaches."

Morris's organization founded the Baltimore Urban Debate League and hosted a series of talks about entrenched racism in the city.

The Hopkins institute's faculty will be joined by 10 visiting scholars each year. The center will sponsor public events in Baltimore and Athens, including an annual series examining a contentious political issue.

"We are bringing together people from different traditions, experiences and points of view to listen and learn from each other, and come to joint understandings that none could reach alone," said Beverly Wendland, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Hopkins, in a statement.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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