College campuses are bursting with special centers. While they’re reassuring mainstays in the higher ed landscape, sometimes their function isn’t obvious.
But other times, a college center operates in lockstep with its community, helping to shape and being shaped by a dynamic, involved, curious citizenry. Case in point: Luther’s Center for Ethics and Public Engagement, a relevant, reflective, bridge-building, and ever-evolving resource for the Luther and regional community.
Founded in 2006 as the Center for Ethics and Public Life and renamed in 2015, the Center for Ethics and Public Engagement (CEPE) fosters student engagement with ethical reflection and civic life. It asks people to consider the role ethics ought to play in public decision-making and, according to its mission, strives to help students “connect the pursuit of learning with what it means to live a meaningful life.”
It does this by facilitating, hosting, and moderating a variety of impactful events and initiatives, and by partnering with campus offices, like Counseling Service and Campus Programming, and regional organizations, like the Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center. When speakers visit campus, CEPE staff often ask them to speak at Decorah’s middle and high schools. “Connecting with the schools has been wonderful,” Krista Holland, the center’s assistant director, says. “It makes so much sense to share the expertise of our visitors with the broader community.”
A guiding principle of the center is to take an interdisciplinary approach, studying shared problems from different perspectives to help people grasp the complexity of public issues. In thinking about the CEPE, associate professor of history Victoria Christman, its third director, likes to imagine a wheel: “All the issues on campus that people are talking about and students are concerned with are like spokes of the wheel. I want the center to be like the hub, where people interested in all of these things can come and find a place that is relevant for them.”
Luther students share this vision—they approach the center to propose and attend programming of all stripes. Holland says, “The center is an avenue for students who are interested in different issues to have a place to land, get support, and make connections across campus.”
Kim Chham ’21 is such a student. Interested in peace work, she participated in the annual CEPE-sponsored trip to the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis, then attended some CEPE panels and discussion and dialogue groups. She’d had previous experience with peace- and community-building and proposed a CEPE-supported workshop for first-years during J-term last year.
“Anywhere I go, I try to do activities I’ve learned to bring communities closer,” Chham says. “Last year we were having a lot of discussions about the gap between domestic and international students, how there wasn’t enough integration. So we wanted to do a community-building workshop for first-year students because they have a long way to go in college and have pretty fresh minds and might want to make changes or open a wider circle of friends with people who are different from them.”
She continues, “The workshop’s aim was to bring together students who don’t normally talk to each other to do some self-reflection, to share what they’re here for, to talk about their important values—and to see that there are more similarities between them than they thought.”
Giving voice and support to student interests
The support that Chham received to launch a project is typical of the CEPE. Lauren Westbrook ’22, a member of Luther’s Active Minds student organization, says, “We’d tried to host several different panels about the role of racial and ethnic identity and how they intersect with mental illness and how those experiences are distinct and unique. We had so much trouble booking a venue, getting organized, and solidifying panels. It didn’t go as well as we would have hoped. So the next time we wanted to hold a panel, Active Minds, PRIDE, and the CEPE all joined together. It was like a round two of the first one that went badly.”
In particular, Westbrook cites the logistical help of CEPE staff in staging the event, from soliciting head shots, commissioning printed materials, and offsetting costs to securing a moderator and counseling services. “They’re so open and receptive to ideas and feedback,” Westbrook says. “The CEPE will put out surveys and answer emails and take ideas, and they’re so easy to work with. As a student, I felt like I was taken seriously.”
Tony Perez Soto ’20 had a similar experience. He went on the annual CEPE-sponsored trip to the Nobel Peace Prize Forum last year and afterward was one of the students, like Chham, who felt driven to continue talking about the issues it raised, like exclusion and discrimination at Luther.
He appreciates that the CEPE staff made follow-up conversations possible, saying that they’re “very committed to achieving a more welcoming, diverse, and respectful community at Luther. They’ve supported a variety of events that promote a holistic understanding of how we are different in terms of socioeconomic background, race, sexual orientation, gender, and so forth.”
When the CEPE brought indigenous leader and activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez to campus during Climate Justice Week in May, Perez Soto used CEPE funds to organize a reception and dinner with the Latines Unides student organization. His organizational skills have earned him a student worker spot in the CEPE office this academic year.
Perez Soto believes the center brings “a variety of perspectives to campus and has supported the visibility of minoritized students at Luther.” He also says, “It gives students the opportunity to learn outside of a classroom and promotes a greater sense of a responsible community. . . . We need more ways to stay close to our mission besides the classroom.”
Bridging ideological divides
One goal of a liberal arts education is to develop thoughtful, active citizens who engage respectfully with different beliefs and opinions. CEPE programming has made a real effort in this regard, not only on campus but in the wider community. In December, the center hosted a structured dialogue between conservative-leaning and liberal-leaning faculty, staff, and community members.
This Red/Blue Workshop was offered in collaboration with Better Angels, which pulls its name from Abraham Lincoln’s appeal to the “better angels of our nature” during his first inaugural address on the brink of the Civil War. Better Angels describes itself as “a national citizens’ movement to reduce political polarization in the United States.” The Red/Blue Workshops, it says, are designed so that “citizens of different political beliefs and different backgrounds can get to know each other as individuals and begin to heal the divisions that are endangering our country.” The event was such a success that the CEPE followed it with a Red/Blue Workshop specifically for students in May.
Christman and Holland predict that as the presidential campaign season ramps up, the CEPE will host more events that bridge the political divide and encourage respectful, fruitful dialogue.
Until then, Luther and Decorah community members are able to test their dialogue skills through the many book groups that the CEPE organizes. Selections range from books about mental health and well-being to books about race, faith, climate action, and technology.
Community member Lynne Sootheran says, “Every book group I went to pushed me beyond myself and got me involved with students and faculty or staff I didn’t know.” While the discussions she attended didn’t get heated, she articulates the value of CEPE programming when she says, “What are we going to do if, in a liberal arts setting, we can’t ask difficult questions without some capacity to control our emotions in a way that allows us to talk, in a way that doesn’t involve moving to hate?”
Sparking dialogue and reflection
Luther students are hungry for meaningful civil dialogue, and they want it to happen beyond the classroom. In the 2018–19 academic year, CEPE student worker Karl Badger ’19 reignited a Luther tradition: a student publication meant to spark conversation about social, political, and cultural issues. The Chessboard picks up where the Luther Review (founded in 2005 by Tim Lundquist ’05, Jake Torgerson ’05, and Mike Flaherty ’05) and the Gadfly (founded in 2009 by Mike Kientzle ’10, George Shardlow ’09, and Brandon Reed ’10) left off.
When Holland showed him copies of the former publications, Badger, who had experience writing for Chips and as a writing tutor, really took to the idea. “I thought that Luther would really benefit from an outlet for discussion, including discussion of different viewpoints,” he says. He consulted with emeritus professor of political science John Moeller, who mentored the founders of the Gadfly and the Luther Review, and then Badger and coeditor Charmaine Neumbo ’22 took off.
The tone of the Chessboard is more conversational than a research paper, and it’s covered topics as diverse as gun violence, abortion, immigration, Gen Z, faith, colonization, media, and higher ed. Badger hopes that it will get people talking outside of the classroom: “I’d love to hear about people picking up a copy in Marty’s or Oneota, talking a look at it, nudging their friend, like, Hey, take a look at this, and starting a conversation. The goal for this is to make sure people are continuing conversation in company with friends.”
The Chessboard is indeed sparking dialogue outside the classroom. After its third installment, student Becca Buse ’19 set up a discussion forum in the CEPE office to talk about the issue.
This is exactly what previous generations of editors had in mind. Gadfly editor Reed wrote an article for the Chessboard’s second issue in which he quoted Luther Review editor Lundquist: “I just think it speaks well of the college that there continues to be group after group of students who find their way to this idea, and it implants strongly enough that it becomes a passion for students—that they want to talk about things and discuss them in their community, and that they want to do it in the most open way possible, which is through writing and inviting critique, criticism, and engagement. This is what dialogue is supposed to look like. I hope that as long as Luther College is around, there will be students who engage in that.”
As long as the CEPE is around, students—and the larger community—will have ample opportunity for it.