SRU students, faculty take part in American Democracy Project


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March 27, 2017

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - According to a 2014 study, for more than 30 years, most of the 50 states have experienced a dramatic rise in income inequality.

In Pennsylvania, the study showed a widening gap between the earnings of most workers and those of the top one percent was due in large part to "the slow and steady erosion of labor standards, tax policies designed to benefit corporations and the wealthy and unchecked rising CEO pay."

Those factors - as well considering whether or not income equality is a social or structural issue; social mobility; and the raising of awareness to the issue itself - will be dissected and discussed by groups of Slippery Rock University students April 1 in Spotts World Culture Building as part of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities American Democracy Project.

AASCU's American Democracy Project is a multi-campus initiative focused on higher education's role in preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens for democracy. The project was established in 2003 through a partnership between AASCU and The New York Times. Since then, ADP has grown to include more than 250 AASCU member colleges and universities and has helped those institutions and more than 2.1 million students find ways to create intellectual and experiential understandings of civic engagement.

Katherine Cooklin


"The purpose of the project is to promote democratic dialogue with members of the campus community that will lead to increased knowledge of economic inequality, and to civic empowerment to act as agents for change," said Katie Cooklin, SRU professor of philosophy, who is serving as the co-coordinator of SRU's ADP project with David Kershaw, associate professor of political science.

"The goals of the project are twofold: one, to make knowledge about economic inequality and complex policy choices regarding the same accessible to SRU students, the campus community and the surrounding public; and two, to foster civic engagement by encouraging the development of an informed opinion that will lead to greater democratic participation that may also serve as a useful feedback loop to policy makers in the region and state. This will be done in this project through the deliberative discussion and debate process."

David Kershaw


Together, Cooklin and Kershaw have gathered a group of nearly 50 student volunteers to participate in the project. Prior to the April 1 event, the group will receive discussion guides on the issue of economic inequality to read in preparation for participation in the project.

"It's important to stress that the perspectives we are providing the students on this topic run the gamut," said Kershaw. "We are not looking or attempting to impose a view. The information is not 'stacked' to either side. This exercise is about rational reasoning on both sides."

The day of the event, participants will engage in small group conversations guided and facilitated by trained student moderators.

"We want them to really talk to each other in an informed way about the facts and the ideas they want to bring to the table," said Cooklin. "We want them to discuss their views openly and honestly as well as to have those views supported and challenged by their fellow students. The idea is to provide a means of rational discourse on the topic."

Following the breakout sessions, the group will be tasked with formulating questions for a panel discussion featuring area experts on the topic, including: Kierston Hobaugh, executive director of United Way Butler County; Cindy Cipoletti, executive director of The Lighthouse Foundation; Steven Green, CEO of Butler County Children's Center; Aaron Lauer, research analyst at the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh; and John Christie Searles, assistant professor of political science at Allegheny College.

Pre-and post-surveys will be administered to the participants in order to determine attitudinal changes as a result of the education and deliberative discussion, according to Kershaw. The results of the post-test will indicate the degree to which students' understanding of the topic of economic inequality has increased, the degree to which their consideration of diverse viewpoints has been enhanced, and the degree to which their motivation for civic engagement and action has grown.

The goal of the ADP, according to AASCU, is to "produce college and university graduates who are equipped with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and experiences they need to be informed, engaged members of their communities."

Since its inception, ADP has organized 14 national and 18 regional meetings; a series of national initiatives; a national assessment project; and hundreds of campus initiatives, including voter education and registration, curriculum revision projects, campus audits, special days of action and reflection, speaker series, and award programs.

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