Can we still find a path to civil discourse?

May 20, 2024

In an era where strong opinions dominate and people are increasingly unwilling to entertain alternative perspectives, Chancellor Domenico Grasso is going old school in his effort to rebuild the foundation for debating big issues.

Chancellor Domenico Grass stands for a portrait in front of two small Dogwood trees in bloom on the UM-Dearborn campus
Credit: Michigan Photography

In his younger days, UM-Dearborn Chancellor Domenico Grasso wasn’t much of a reader, aside from his assigned school readings, like “Lord of the Flies,” “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Julius Caesar.” It’s something he chalks up to a number of factors. His Italian immigrant parents, who didn’t read English, didn’t encourage reading at home. As a teenager, he devoted much of his free time to sports. And his main academic interests were math and science, not disciplines, like literature, that didn’t give the indisputable answers he was interested in. That started to change when Grasso met his now-wife of 35 years. Susan, a fellow engineer who started college in the Honors program in U-M’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts, was the opposite — an adventurous and enthusiastic reader who consumed everything from novels to nonfiction, science to literature. When they started dating, he tried to explain that he simply didn’t have the attention span for reading. But she didn’t buy it. “Then why don’t you just read one or two pages and put the book down?” she said. Such a straightforward and simple solution hadn’t occurred to him. He remembers starting with Sinclair Lewis, a novelist and playwright who wrote prescient social commentaries on topics as diverse as the banality of middle class life and the dangers of American fascism. One or two pages at a time, Grasso made his way through Lewis’ “Main Street,” then “Babbitt,” then book after book. The habit stuck.

Now, Grasso says his enthusiasm for reading matches Susan’s. And he’s equally adventurous. Though he’s an environmental engineer by training, his reading preferences bend toward literature, the social sciences and philosophy — interests you see reflected in his selections for the Chancellor’s Book Club, a campus group he started several years ago. His inaugural pick, “Klara and the Sun,” a dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, is a commentary on the nature of love that focuses on the life of an artificial being. “When We Cease to Understand the World” by Benjamín Labatut is a novel based on real-life scientists that explores the links between discovery and humanity’s penchant for destruction. Annie Ernaux’s “A Man’s Place” probes the familial tensions that arise from transcending social class. Grasso’s latest selection, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been influential in helping us understand important fractures now plaguing society.

Grasso says his motivation for starting the club was straightforward. “To be honest, there are a lot of book clubs out there and I didn’t want to participate in a book club,” he explains. “I just made an offer: If anyone wants to read the same book I’m reading, we can have a discussion.” Grasso hopes the club offers a window into the ideas and perspectives that inform his approach as chancellor. And he believes reading and discussing a really interesting book can, in fact, be entertaining. But the book club is also a gesture toward one of his core values: That we need to have spaces on campus, and in our lives, for discussing provocative, consequential issues and ideas in a thoughtful, open-minded way. 

It may sound simple, but the idea that civil dialogue can exist is something that many have, frankly, given up on. Say it out loud, and it sounds a little old school. Some might find it Pollyannaish. Polarization, particularly in the political sphere, along with an accompanying hardening of belief systems, has led many to judge that it’s no longer worth trying to have conversations with colleagues, friends, relatives and neighbors who have different views. Grasso, for one, still thinks such a thing is possible. Or more specifically, he doesn’t have a lot of optimism for a society that completely loses that skill. “I think it is our only hope,” Grasso says. “What I believe isn’t too far from what Thomas Jefferson said about the prerequisite for democracy being an informed electorate. I think you can make the same argument that if you want an inclusive, nurturing, welcoming environment for all the people who live in our society, you need a well-educated group of people who can think through the challenges we have. And we’re losing the ability to have these kinds of conversations.”

Grasso is happy to see that kind of thoughtful dialogue happening within the book club and its sister group, the Chancellor's Video Club, where participants watch and then discuss big idea YouTube videos. (The first was the classic 1965 James Baldwin-William F. Buckley debate and the latest was a panel discussion of Francis Fukuyama’s “Liberalism and Its Discontents.”) Perhaps it’s not surprising things are going well. The clubs’ most active participants tend to be faculty members who are well-practiced in debating ideas and coexisting with colleagues who have different opinions. But as he looks across the university, he thinks we are missing out on some opportunities to nurture the open-mindedness, humility and broad curiosity that he thinks are necessary ingredients for civil discourse and thoughtful problem solving. He points to his own discipline, engineering, as an area where he thinks a narrow mindset is undercutting engineering’s broader potential. “We talk about engineering like it’s only an extension of math and science, and unfortunately, I see so many engineering students, like my younger self, who see the humanities, and English and reading as fluff,” he says. “I even remember a celebratory reception for a colleague who was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, where he proudly declared that he had never read a novel! But engineering is rarely simply math and science. It’s taking math and science and applying it to human problems. Robert Pirsig, who wrote ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,’ observed that technology ends up doing such ugly things because it’s disconnected in any real sense from humanity. Engineers often create things because they can, but without thought as to how their creativity is going to be absorbed and adapted by humanity. And that’s because many engineers are detached from the essence of the human condition.”

Grasso also thinks that, despite the right intentions, we lost the plot when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. “There is no question that whoever is on campus, we want them to represent the whole of human potential,” Grasso says. “But I think we reached a stage with DEI where it started to take on a life independent of what its original objectives were. It was a means that became an end. And we don't have as much to show for it as may have been possible. I do feel like we went down some wrong paths in DEI planning, and I want to go back on the trail a little bit and look for the flashes on the trees and get back on the right trail.” Grasso’s idea for that centers around a new Office of Holistic Excellence, which was recently featured in an article in Learning Well magazine. He concedes it’s an “ambiguous” name — something he says is intentional so the office can become an umbrella for a broad group of initiatives. Specifically, Grasso wants the office to support a more encompassing sense of diversity and inclusivity, which emphasizes a diversity of perspectives and disciplines, in addition to demographic diversity. His thinking is that the capacity for open-minded, thoughtful, cool-headed dialogue — the thing he feels is required to solve a diverse society’s biggest challenges — can be best nurtured by an environment in which members of our campus community encounter views that aren’t their own as a regular part of their lives here. Necessarily, this also means that the university must continue its efforts to ensure that education is accessible and its population is demographically diverse, two of the main goals of prior DEI initiatives. He just doesn't want the effort to be limited to the scope of the traditional DEI playbook. 

Grasso isn’t pretending to have all the answers. In fact, his whole point is that he doesn’t — nor does anyone. He believes the best solutions, including in a complex and polarizing area like diversity and inclusion, will require everyone’s involvement. But he feels like, as chancellor, he can help set the tone. “At the end of the day, what I’d like is a community that’s more like the academy of ancient Greece,” he says. “Not that we’re walking around in togas, but that we’re asking important, relevant and deep questions. It’s better to be curious than confident. And I fear that our society is filled with an overabundance of confidence and a scant amount of curiosity. I’d like our campus to be the antidote to that. I’d like it to be a place where people are super curious, and they want to know about other cultures, other disciplines and other ways of thinking about important topics, so we can develop a clearer view for a collectively desirable future.”


If you’re looking for something to add to your summer reading list, the next Chancellor’s Book Club selection is “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt. The New York Times noted that Haidt’s 2012 book “wants to start a conversation about integrating a better understanding of human nature — our sentiments, sociality and morality — into the ways we debate and govern ourselves.” A discussion will be hosted in the fall. Story by Lou Blouin