How a whiteboard encourages students’ civic mindset
May 1, 2023
How involved should the United States be in supporting Ukraine? Which letter grade would President Joe Biden be given? These are some of the questions that have been the centerpoint of attention on Democracy Square, a dry erase board in the Steely Library atrium where respondents can anonymously share their opinions on political issues.
Northern Kentucky University’s board forum, installed ten years ago, is modeled after a chalk wall erected by the Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Speech in the center of Charlottesville, Virginia. Universities across the nation have since adopted the idea into dry erase boards—even a digital version in Florida. Whatever form it might take, the principle is the same: to invite public commentary and discussion on political questions that figure prominently in everyday life.
The board at NKU is maintained by the Scripps Howard Center for Student Engagement, an office focused on connecting the campus with the larger community through civic initiatives. The team comes up with a new question for the board every week, usually one concerning a topic that has recently been featured in the news.
“Around election times we’ll ask a lot of questions that are related to the election,” said Mark Neikirk, executive director of the Scripps Howard Center. “Things that are as simple as, do you plan to vote? Why or why not? Which candidate are you going to vote for? What issues matter to you?”
The Scripps Howard Center tracks the number of students registering for and participating in elections, and according to Neikirk, nine out of ten NKU students are registered to vote. The level of student participation in democracy at NKU tends to be higher compared to other universities in the area, but they seek to maintain that level at all times as senior students graduate and freshmen come in.
Getting students to register to vote is a priority for the Scripps Howard Center. The office encourages freshmen to vote in UNV 101 classes and invites young public officials to NKU to discuss running for office, be it for Congress or for local city councils and school boards. Freshman college students are an untapped segment of potential voters, according to Danny Lovell, program coordinator at Scripps.
Elections are not the only form of civic engagement that NKU students are interested in, however. Questions on Democracy Square often generate many answers, sometimes spiraling into a debate as new responses are created in support or rebuttal of previous ones.
At the moment of writing, the board asks, “NKU will be hiring a new president. If you could tell the university’s new leader one or two things most needed at NKU, what would those be?” One respondent suggests investment in greener infrastructure on campus and divesting away from fossil fuels for powering buildings. Another response calls for curriculum reform and tuition reduction. “If your class can be passed just by breathing, it isn’t worth $500-700 or our time!” the response reads.
For Neikirk, the potential to spark conversations is one of the most impressive aspects of the board.
“I think the board succeeds most is when you see a conversation occur. We can all disagree with each other, but to the extent that we can understand a different position from our own, it’s useful,” Neikirk said. “If I walk by and I see a conversation like that going, I think it’s been a good week for Democracy Square.”
Much like an online message board located in a physical space, Democracy Square invites a gamut of perspectives and attitudes, from substantial and honest discourse to what Neikirk calls, “a little frivolous and occasionally a little profane.” Respondents are not afraid to use profanity and insults, but they are a part of free speech that Democracy Square accommodates to engage students in the political process.
“So all this is a part of that, that bigger picture of ‘let’s participate, let’s govern ourselves.’ If we don’t like something that’s happening, talk about why you don’t like it, try to influence public policy, consider running for office. But the very least you can do is register and vote,” Neikirk said.
For some students, Democracy Square’s effectiveness is hampered by its physical location. The board is currently set against the wall next to the charging station in the Steely Library atrium, directly facing the computers and seating area. However, because it is obscured by a wall when students enter the library, the board is not very visible. Some students feel that the board might benefit from a more prominent location like that of the whiteboard inside the library’s third floor, which is filled to the edge with responses every week.
Still, the number and range of responses on Democracy Square illustrate the high degree of political participation among NKU students. Neikirk observes in research and data that college students tend to rally behind a cause rather than a party. On a variety of issues spanning gun control, policing in cities and gender rights, college students are less interested in a party’s stance and more in how to address the issue. They are relatively active in volunteering for nonprofits and backing groups that work toward a cause they support.
When he visits a classroom and hears discussion among students, Neikirk said that students do not show the absolute judgment that one might encounter in the media and social media discourse. Students are willing to listen to one another and a dialogue occurs on campus, Neikirk said. “I don’t see that war of words on campus among students that you see on Facebook and television.”
Neikirk believes that people stand a better chance of solving problems and gaining understanding when they talk, even as they diverge in their support of particular causes and candidates.
Outside of Democracy Square and outreach efforts for voting registration, the Scripps Howard Center collaborates with several classes at NKU for the Mayerson Student Philanthropy Project, where students decide on a nonprofit to donate money to, and the Six@Six lecture series. According to Neikirk, the office aims to return Six@Six to locations in the community after transitioning to a hybrid format for the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Democracy Square was first initiated at NKU, the questions were connected to headlines in physical copies of The New York Times and USA Today. These newspapers are no longer available on campus, but Scripps is considering the possibility of reviving the idea with digital stories.
“The two things work together: become more educated on an issue and then vote based on your education,” Neikirk said. “When it comes to participating in a democracy, you have a right to vote. You have a right to run for office, but you will be doing a better job of it if you answer the responsibility to do so in an informed way.”