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A civil haven for speakers, listeners and scholars

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

By Harrison Berry

illustration of elk and bald eagle greeting each other across a divide
Illustration by Ben Konkol.

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.”Dr. Marlene Tromp

Institute for Advancing American Values

Closed captions are provided and a transcript is available at the end of this page.

Meet the illustrator/ animator behind the image

Alum Ben Konkol created a visual presence for the Institute for Advancing American Values.

Read more about Ben Konkol

Video Transcript

[Dr. Marlene Tromp, President, Boise State University] We are so excited to introduce the Institute for Advancing American Values. 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 dialog with each other and to have their voices heard on campus. Universities are places where these dialogs should take place, and so the work of this institute is in many ways the work of the university. I’m really proud that we have appointed Andrew Finstuen the inaugural director of the Institute for Advancing American Values. Andrew, I’d love to have you talk a little bit about what you see as the potential for the Institute.

[Dr. Andrew Finstuen, Dean, Honors College] Well, you’ve already spoken so eloquently about our goal with this, which is really to reenergize and have the university focus on that range of opinions and ideas and concepts that universities are supposed to house. In fact, I’ve often talked about in the context of the institute that a university is a house of the whole. And I want to make sure I say that a house of the whole, the full range of human experience, ideas and the natural world that we come together and study. So the institute allows us to range across all of those ideas and questions, and especially in this moment where we are having conversations and conviction and disagreement around values and specifically around the notion of American values. And so this institute helps us have a vehicle to address those questions and have those conversations. Yeah and that’s what we’re looking forward to in the programing is the Speaker Series, or various things that we have in the works that we’ll unroll or unveil here in the next few months, but also as we engage more of our scholarship, both external scholars and our own Boise State faculty, and think about courses in new ways and think about their own scholarship in new ways so that we’re not just having conversation alone. We’re also studying and using the the resources of the university and expertise to help drive understanding of different values and perspectives. And then also thinking about how we educate and teach in across all these disciplines with these kinds of ideas in mind. So that’s part of what our next steps is actually now putting, you’ve used the word architecture, now we have to fill out that architecture between our dialog, our research and our teaching and educational pursuits.

[Dr. Tromp] And what really excites me about all of this work, it’s such important work and I thank you for your leadership, Andrew, and I’m excited to see how our community engages. But what really excites me is it allows Boise State to be a national leader in this effort and to really provide a model not just for our own community and our own state, but for our country about what it can mean to come together instead of driving apart.