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Dean’s Desktop: Fall 2018

Over the past few years, civil discourse in our world—particularly around politics—has become anything but civil. Some blame the extreme partisan rhetoric that seems to have exploded. Others look to the rise of social media as the cause. Rather than point fingers, however, wouldn’t it be more productive to figure out how we can change the course of our discourse, and in the process, shore up our democracies?

Enter the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins, named for the organization that made an astounding $150 million gift for us to explore and address the causes underlying the current discourse.

The SNF Agora Institute will bring together experts from around the world along with members of our own faculty, students, and the general public to examine and elevate the state of civil discourse and democratic decision-making. The goal is to encourage conversations, debates, and ideas that can chip away at the bitter polarization that has only served to divide us.

The institute draws its inspiration from the agora of ancient Athens, a gathering place for debate and discussion that made it the birthplace of democracy. Scientific theory also was born at the ancient agora, where great minds such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle instructed students and discussed philosophical and social issues. One could even argue that medicine’s Hippocratic oath and math’s Pythagorean theorem might not exist today without the presence of the ancient agora, as both Hippocrates and Pythagoras were public figures known to have shared their ideas at the agora.

Fast forward to today, where the goals of the ancient agora will inform our SNF Agora Institute, but it will look much different (and more inclusive) than it did centuries ago in Athens. The SNF Agora Institute will have its own building, to be designed by none other than world-renowned architect Renzo Piano. He is the recipient of architecture’s most prestigious prizes and creator of acclaimed buildings on five continents. Some of his most well-known projects include the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Shard in London, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens, and the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. And now, the building for our SNF Agora Institute right here in Baltimore, dedicated to strengthening democracy by improving civic engagement and civil discourse worldwide. We have not yet determined where on the Homewood campus the new building will stand, so stay tuned.

This is the hope I have for our SNF Agora Institute: that people from around the world will benefit from the research, conversations, and efforts that will happen here; that they will learn how other people live and think; and that they will develop respect for one another amid their differences. On the opposite page is an article that illustrates how the SNF Agora Institute has already begun to build bridges. The SNF Agora Institute is going to be a game changer for our university and hopefully, for the world.


Beverly Wendland