The Mission Statement of the Hauenstein Center

Gleaves Whitney

January 21, 2015

It is useful every once in a while to restate what an institution’s purpose is. On the occasion of the Hauenstein Center’s first American Conversation in 2015, I would like to restate what we are about.

Again and again, I am approached by people who attend our programs and say, “We are sick and tired of what politics have become. What is the Hauenstein Center doing to overcome the ideological gridlock and cynicism and dysfunction and corruption that dominate the headlines these days? Aren’t we better than that?”

Yes, we are better than that. As a student of American history, I believe to my core that we are better than today’s sordid, discouraging headlines.

I first remind them that we are West Michigan, where leaders like President Gerald Ford, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, and Congressman Paul Henry knew how to work in democratic institutions where people with robust disagreements could nevertheless come together and solve problems. Our best statesmen from the Midwest can teach a thing or two to New York and DC.

Second, I point to another West Michigander, our Center’s founding benefactor, Col. Ralph W. Hauenstein, whose career exemplifies the ethical leadership and public service that we want to instill in our students and leadership fellows. In World War II, Ralph played a key role in one of the greatest common ground initiatives in human history, D-Day. That harrowing experience taught him valuable lessons, and he’s passed the lessons on to us.

Third, in 2012, with the help of an NEH grant, the Hauenstein Center launched the Common Ground Initiative to encourage the principled exploration of clashing policies and clanging philosophies.

Our goal is not to turn Democrats into Republicans or Republicans into Democrats. Our goal is not to create operatives in the middle of the road who would sacrifice principle for process. Rather, our goal is to raise up leaders who have the skill and understanding to work among diverse people to find common ground for the common good. It is the only way democratic institutions can work.

Our Common Ground Initiative is premised on the idea that a free people always develop contending factions. For simplicity, let’s boil them down to the party of innovation and the party of conservation. American history mostly happens where these two parties collide – and then learn to compromise and accommodate each other – before colliding again. It is an endless drama.

I like to think of the relationship between these two opposing forces as part of a triptych. If you’ve been to an art museum, perhaps you’ve encountered a triptych, or three panels of paintings. For our purposes, think of the left panel as the party of innovation. Think of the right panel as the party of conservation. To be sure, each of these panels has its own conflicts. But the main drama of American history takes place where left and right clash in the big center panel.

Democrats vs. Republicans. Progressives vs. conservatives. North vs. South. Jeffersonians vs. Hamiltonians. Federalists vs. Antifederalists. There is always one group that wants to slow down the pace of change and conserve institutions, while another group wants to speed up the pace of change and get on with innovation and reform.

The art of leadership in this environment, the art of politics in our democracy, is to find principled ways to leverage these clashing forces for the public good. That’s one of the reasons we focus on the presidency. Our presidents are the only public officials who are elected by all the people. By definition, the Oval Office needs to cultivate the capacity to find common ground for the public good.

Our Common Ground Initiative is unique in higher education today. No other public university in the U.S. is making a balanced, comprehensive exploration of what it means to be progressive and what it means to be conservative in the 21st century. Our Wheelhouse Talks inspire leaders. Our American Conversations engage citizens. Our Coffee House Debates inform voters. In all these forums we explore these two traditions and search out the common ground they might share – historically, culturally, and politically.

At Hauenstein Center programs, you’re going to hear speakers you disagree with. That’s a good thing. We bring you these programs in the conviction that academic rigor requires intellectual diversity. Our Common Ground Initiative seeks to create a space where conservatives and progressives can come together in an open, respectful, intellectually rigorous forum to confront the challenges we face.

Ask us about our many exciting programs – Hitchens v. Hitchens, Arianna Huffington v. Victor Davis Hansen, and more than 400 others we have hosted.

  •  For this evening’s American Conversation, we bring you the world’s foremost authority on free will. Alfred Mele invites us to revisit this ancient but ever-new debate because, if a free people do have free will, if a free people can choose how they shall live together, then we are obligated to accept the awesome burdens of democracy.
  •  On February 3rd we are hosting a Coffee House debate in which two legal experts from Washington, DC, will wrestle over the meaning of free speech and a landmark Supreme Court case called Citizens United.
  •  On April 2, we are hosting two people who could not be more opposed in their politics and philosophies. Cornel West and Robby George, both from Princeton University, will share with us how they became unlikely friends and developed a popular course that they team teach.
  •  Then on April 30-May 1, we are hosting a summit on the Midwest, a seemingly forgotten region, but one that in the long run will prove to be America’s most common ground of all.
  •  For more details about our many exciting programs, please visit www.hauensteincenter.org. Find out more; attend our events; get involved with the important work we do.

Let me conclude by thanking you for all the ways you support the Hauenstein Center and our efforts to help Americans find principled common ground.

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