Amid Election Season Clashes, RWU Students Chose Civil Discourse

Conservative and liberal students hosted political forum as MTV cameras rolled

Students gather to talk and sign an agreement to continue civil discourse.
After leading a frank discussion about political tensions on campus, student organizers (left to right) Will Nardi, Kalasia Richer, Mariela O'Neill and John Rice continue the conversation with their fellow students who thanked them for the opportunity to share in civil and respectful dialogue on political differences.
Edward Fitzpatrick

BRISTOL, R.I. – As fiercely emotional political showdowns took place on campuses across the nation this past election cycle, a group of conservative and liberal Roger Williams University students showed how it’s possible to engage in civil discourse despite sharp political differences.

The Emmy Award-winning MTV documentary series “True Life” captured the conflict and the reconciliation as students had frank discussions about campus tensions and then joined in organizing a student forum that produced a wide-ranging political discussion.

MTV plans to broadcast the RWU segment as part of an episode about conflict stemming from the Nov. 8 presidential election. The “True Life” episode is expected to air prior to Inauguration Day on Friday, Jan. 20.

Following the election, students raised concerns about the policy consequences and about the need for justice in the classroom. So on Nov. 30, RWU President Donald J. Farish hosted a “fireside chat” on campus, saying his immediate concern was for members of the LGBTQ community, international students, Muslims and students of color generally.

During the event, conservative student Will Nardi told Farish he’d received threats and “the political climate on this campus has gotten so hostile to the point where I am now seriously considering transferring.” Farish replied that he hoped Nardi would not transfer. “We will be a healthier campus by having a broader dialogue, not a narrower dialogue,” Farish said. “We have to learn how to talk to each other and listen to each other.”

Acting on students’ desire for more constructive dialogue, Nardi, who describes himself as a political activist who writes for a conservative blog called The Rabble Rouser, began organizing a student forum along with a fellow conservative student, Kalasia Richer, and two liberal students, John Rice and Mariela O’Neill.

On Dec. 7, more than 75 students came to the RWU Global Heritage Hall atrium to hear the four students lead a discussion while the MTV cameras rolled. Students stepped to a microphone, debating issues ranging from gun control to climate change, and at the conclusion of the 1-1/2-hour event, they lined up to sign a “peace treaty.”

“We the students of Roger Williams University, in light of the recent hostility on this campus and across the country, agree to respect our fellow students with different political opinions. Regardless of political ideology, we are here to form a bond of community,” the treaty read, in part.

“Seeing that we ourselves are not the model university of the country, we can’t totally understand the climate of other campuses, but our campus community will begin to endeavor towards the mission of unity,” it read. “Together as a student body, we hope to engage in lively discussion with our peers on all issues for the good of Roger Williams, and the country as a whole, while maintaining our individualized civility, thus preserving our humanity.”

At the outset of the forum, O’Neill welcomed students, saying, “We have all come to see the tension and high emotions that the 2016 presidential election has produced, as well as recent events on this campus. So tonight’s theme is about civility and professionalism. Individuals during the open mic will be allowed to speak freely either to discuss the election, the tenseness on our campus, or anything along the vein of reconciliation.”

The first student to step to the microphone asked Nardi about an article he had written for The Rabble Rouser, titled “Transgenderism: A Rejection of Reality,” which suggested transgender people have “mental disorders.”

In reply, Nardi said, “I definitely want to make an apology to any people, especially from the trans community, who that article might have harmed. I never want to hurt anyone with any of my pieces. And moving forward, as I sign this treaty, that is my own pledge and commitment to try and move forward with civility.”

Later in the forum, Rice said he had apologized to Nardi for calling that article “disgusting” on Facebook. “Now, that’s not rhetoric that is positive,” he said. “Obviously, I didn’t agree with the perspectives that were taken in the article, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t sit down and talk face-to-face about why I feel that way. The conversation has to begin.”

Nardi said he respected and admired Rice for apologizing. “I didn’t know John and Mariela before, but as we began talking to each other and planning this event, I got to realize that they are both really cool people,” he said. “While I guarantee Mariela and I will not agree on a dozen different political issues, the fact that we could have those conversations without screaming down each other’s throats, and getting so personal about it, it made me start to listen to her more. And hopefully she’ll start to listen to me a little bit more, too.”

In the weeks following the taping, the students offered their reflections on the event and its context at a time of deep political division. They talked about shifting the campus climate from confrontational to constructive, and they vowed to find ways to continue engaging on important policy matters in the future.

Rice said, “This is a very fragile time in the United States, especially for the preservation of opportunities to engage in civil discourse. Colleges and universities across the United States need to make sure they are providing effective institutional intervention to provide opportunities for civil discourse on even the most controversial and sensitive topics. Proper and effective institutional intervention can be in the form of open discussions, roundtable discussions, events on campus that are related to a specific topic, and guest speakers who provide perspective to a certain topic.”

Rice said he’s proud of what was accomplished at RWU. “And I am proud that we as students proved that conflict and difference could be addressed in a productive and positive way,” he said. “As the Roger Williams Student Senate Student Affairs Committee chair, I promise to continue this movement of promoting civil discourse. And I will continue to address the need for and attempt to provide effective institutional interventions to conflict that arise on issues pertaining to student affairs.”

Nardi said, “I’ll admit that before I began this project, I really didn’t think we could possibly reconcile the post-election tensions.” But he said that after he spoke at the fireside chat, “liberal students stepped up to say what was happening to me was wrong. With former rivals coming to apologize, I knew that we had a chance to step up and reunite the community.”

The experience underscored the downside of online communication, Nardi said. “Communication was meant to be done in person, but unfortunately that is not how our society works anymore,” he said. “Electronic communications and social media transports us to a digital world, stripping us of our humanity as we enter an environment primed for fallouts.”

But the student forum showed that people with different political viewpoints can overcome misconceptions and have lively -- yet civil -- policy debates, Nardi said. “After shaking hands with those across the aisle, I am now confident that other campus leaders across the country can begin to meet each other halfway, let down their pride and move forward for the good of the country,” he said. “Our story proves that while it may not be easy, we can once again be the United States of America.”