Finding Common Grounds: A New Student-Faculty Initiative

Eric Hall '18
Producation Editor

Violent student protest shutting down an inflammatory college speaker. Senate minority members refusing to hold hearings for a Supreme Court nominee. A Facebook user deleting an old friend for posting a pro-Trump message. These events are hardly the fallout from Donald Trump’s election. They are the symptoms of an unprecedented division in our political culture. Although the election results quantified it, to many, including Professor Deborah Hellman, the tear in our nation’s fabric was apparent long before November 8th, 2016. 

“I first started thinking about Common Grounds when two students, one from Fed Soc and one from Virginia Law Women, approached me to moderate an event,” Hellman told me when we sat down last week to discuss her student-faculty initiative aimed at reinitiating thoughtful, civil discussion between politically diverse students and faculty. It occurred to her that there were very few law school events that direct participants to understand each other’s positions. Student groups often host debates, a mode of interaction that, according to Hellman, “only encourages finding what’s wrong with the other side and arguing against it.” Although debates can be helpful, Hellman’s initiative seeks to supplement them by taking residents of opposite ideological houses and facilitating their interaction in a way that builds consensus. The initiative seeks to identify points of agreement on which both houses are built. Hence the name, Common Grounds.

“I think that’s healthy. Our students are going to go out and play leadership roles in society,” Hellman said. She describes Common Grounds’ purpose as a “process goal” that “inculcates in students habits of mind of interacting with people in trust-building ways.” A typical event might resemble a debate but with a moderator whose goal is not to foster controversy but elicit understanding, to have speakers express their opinion and then reason down to basic principles on which both agree. Another exercise, suggested by Professor Kimberly Ferzan, would have student and faculty participants with opposing views discuss their opinions with one another, and then attempt to explain the other side’s view to the group. Hellman also hopes to recruit a speaker from the psychology department here at UVa to describe the challenges in bringing together people with profoundly divergent views. Potential topics for the first few events would include those most familiar (and divisive) to the law school student body such as micro-aggressions, safe spaces, and affirmative action policies. 

The organization is still very much in its nascency, and what it becomes will be in the hands of the brave students and faculty who are willing to cross the aisle. But already Hellman foresees some substantive proposals that could emerge. For example, Common Grounds could partner with the Political Science department on Main Grounds to develop a sort of ranking system for politicians based on their ability and willingness to compromise similar to what certain partisan organizations do for issues like environmentalism or gun rights. For those political disagreements that are empirical in nature, Common Grounds could help certify data as nonpartisan. 

Aside from the usual challenges of starting a new student group, Common Grounds also faces some unique hurdles.  Hellman recognizes the difficulty in today’s political climate of getting, for example, Clinton and Trump voters to talk about anything let alone seek common ground. But she supposes that the law school community may be the best place to open that channel. “There’s already a reservoir of goodwill” that we have towards one another within the law school because of our shared experience. More specifically, UVa’s Southern culture breeds a civility and collegiality that might make it the perfect incubator for such a cross-partisan effort. UVa is also a more politically diverse law school that many of its piers. This feature mitigates another challenge: finding and retaining an ideological diverse membership. “It shouldn’t be a centrist organization,” Hellman emphasized. Already the organization has attracted a handful of professors and students that span the liberal-conservative palette, including professors Kimberly Ferzan and Charles Barzun. 

Notwithstanding these advantages, Hellman has no illusions about how difficult the task will be. Having these discussions without poisoning the reservoir of goodwill will be hard, she freely admits when I press her on the risk that friendships will be strained. But the payoff will be worthwhile. “Our society depends on a constitutional culture” that requires us to engage with one another and compromise where we can, she says. “That is being challenged by the polarization that we have.” Common Grounds seeks to reverse that trend. Now more than ever, we need inititiatives to salvage political discourse, to de-villainize opponents, and ultimately, to save democracy. 

Open-minded students and faculty interested in joining the vanguard of the Common Grounds movement should attend an information session at 12 PM on Monday, February 13th in WB 104. For more information, contact Professor Hellman at