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A civil haven for speakers, listeners and scholars

Illustration by Alumni Artist Ben Konkol.
Illustration by Alumni Artist Ben Konkol.

Boise State’s new Institute for Advancing American Values explores enduring principles through conversation and research

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According to a November 2021 Pew Research Center poll, 60 percent of Democratic-leaning respondents said it was “stressful and frustrating” to talk politics with people they disagree with. Close to the same number of Republican-leaning respondents agreed. The problem has drawn the interest of many — including leaders at Boise State who, in 2021, established the Institute for Advancing American Values in an effort to bring people together.

Billed as an alternative to Americans talking past each other about hot topics like the environment, the economy and society, the institute seeks to inspire productive discourse grounded in values Americans hold dear — opportunity, equality, individual rights, and free speech.

“We are at a fever pitch of polarization in the United States,” said Andrew Finstuen, dean of Boise State’s Honors College and the institute’s founding director. “But through the institute, we are brokering dialogue, research and education toward establishing balance and constructive advancement of our lives together.”

Many missions

The Institute will house the Distinguished Lecture Series, the 2022 season of which began with a visit from Wall Street Journal columnist and author Jason Riley, followed by Professor Danielle Allen, an expert on democracy and education. It will also be home to Idaho Listens, recent recipient of a $1 million donation. The program draws speakers with varied backgrounds, beliefs and experiences. The Conviction and Conversation in Contested Times series, which has hosted community conversations on topics from faith traditions to health care since 2020, will also fall under the institute’s umbrella.

The institute also will advance scholarly pursuits, offering grants for researchers to study values like democracy and free expression through multiple perspectives. It expects to add additional research opportunities for undergraduates in the future. To pay for these grants as well as visiting scholars, an endowed directorship and more, the institute will continue to fundraise and build community support.

“This is a vehicle for the university to do what it does best, which is engage in multiple ideas and be a forum to have a dialogue on those ideas, conduct research on those ideas and educate on those ideas,” Finstuen said.

Boise State President Marlene Tromp, who began brainstorming with Finstuen in 2020 about ways to curb societal discord, characterized the institute as an ideal fit for Boise State.

“This project, which is so important right now in this cultural moment, is designed to show us that it is possible for people from a wide range of political perspectives to be in dialogue with each other and to have their voices heard on campus,” Tromp said. “Universities are places where these dialogues should take place, and the work of the institute is, in many ways, the work of the university.”

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