Finding Common Ground in an Era of Polarized Politics

Washington University in St. Louis, the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement

July 18, 2018

Recent news headlines point to college campuses as places of political polarization. In a 2018 Gallup Poll, college students perceived campus climate to be more supportive of liberal thought, leading them to attribute the school as being much more favorable of liberal ideologies than conservative ideologies.  

The prevailing reputation of Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) is similarly seen as left-leaning in political ideology. The “Presidential Debate 2016” issue of the Student Life newspaper polled 663 undergraduates and reported that 93.1% of registered voters planned to vote along Democratic Party lines, whereas only 6.9% would vote along Republican Party lines. However, when it came to party affiliation, 8.7% of students identified as independent while 23.2% of students were unaffiliated with any party, suggesting that WashU students were not fixed along party lines and potentially open to different perspectives.   

As the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, we ask ourselves, what can we do to address these perceptions, close the gap in political polarization, and prepare our university community with the knowledge and skills to support a thriving democracy? 

In 2016, the Gephardt Institute piloted one-time election year grants to support faculty to engage students in political dialogue, programs, and events, with an emphasis on discourse across diverse political beliefs. Following on this success, we developed partnerships with the Division of Student Affairs and the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics to launch a new opportunity to fund students, faculty, and staff through Common Ground Grants. In a national climate of increasing polarization and ideological division, these grants are designed to catalyze the campus community in developing strategies to repair, address, and prevent polarization.  

Through the evolution of our grant-making strategy, our team has learned many lessons regarding effective practices and considerations that may be helpful for other universities. 

First, in order to provide grant funding for others, we needed to identify funding internally and ensure that resource would be available over time. We found that bringing multiple departments together to collaborate on the grant-making process helped to create a bigger pool of resources. With three different offices contributing $1,000-$2,500 annually, we are now able to allocate grants from $500-$1,000 for 6-12 unique proposals. To identify funding sources, we pursued multiple options including: re-allocating institute funds; seeking grant funding; and identifying individual donors interested in addressing political polarization. The most effective strategy for the Gephardt Institute has been to garner support from individual donors. Each school will need to assess which approach will be effective given your context. 

Second, we introduced the Common Ground Grants during the 2017-2018 academic year, an off-election year, resulting in minimal traction attracting applicants. It was helpful for us to build the administrative infrastructure, oversight committee, and create the communications materials during the pilot phase which are now ready for fall 2018, just in time for midterm elections. Each campus is unique in how students, faculty, and staff receive information or learn about new resources available. We recommend strategically connecting with influencers on campus- whether student group leaders, department heads, or faculty members whose work aligns with the goals of the grant to conduct individual outreach while also promoting the funds more broadly. Kicking off a new fund with several public events and success stories will help increase interest from others on campus. 

Third, our original goal of sparking opportunities for dialogue and engagement across political ideologies has yielded project concepts beyond what we originally imagined. To date, two proposals have fostered in-person dialogue, including an inter-faith, intergroup dialogue retreat, and a series of workshops that convened student activists to discuss identity, values, and collaboration across groups. Our committee was surprised, however, by the number of proposals requesting funds for visual dialogue, including a "Hope Wall" that countered xenophobic narratives with positive messages of hope and inclusion, displayed on the US-Mexico border. 

These examples have shown us the potential power of campus community members to create innovative approaches to engage others in important dialogue, and their insights to plan activities that reinforce the skills and values needed for a thriving democracy. As we look to what will surely be contentious election cycles of deep polarization to come, our Common Ground Grants have been one successful innovation we hope to leverage and model a thriving democracy. What innovations are you planning that foster a campus culture inclusive of diverse identities, political ideologies, and perspectives? 

The Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement fosters a vibrant culture of civic engagement throughout Washington University, realized by engaged citizens, scholarship, and partnerships that advance the collective good. More information about our Common Ground Grants can be found on our website at


  • Cara Johnson, Assistant Director for Student Engagement and Service, Washington University in St. Louis, the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement
  • Theresa Kouo, Assistant Director for Civic Engagement Education, Washington University in St. Louis, the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement

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