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From the Dean: The Convergence of Democracy, Journalism and Citizenship

June 15, 2022

David M. Van Slyke

David M. Van Slyke


The media continues to provide heartbreaking images from the crisis in Ukraine—the stark remains of bombed homes, families seeking refuge with only a few precious possessions, teenagers and grandparents turned soldiers, and bodies in the streets.

Just after the February 24 invasion by Russia, polls showed Vladimir Putin’s approval rating rose to multi-year highs, reaching 70 percent. A survey found that around 58 percent of Russians approved of the offensive.

From our vantage point, these numbers may seem hard to conceive. Yet, popular opinion in Russia is provided by state-run media—propaganda that portrays Putin as a strong, heroic leader while suggesting that the people of Ukraine are subversive.

Russians who suggest otherwise do so at great personal risk.

What’s unfolding serves as a reminder of the critical role of an independent media in supporting the underpinnings of a healthy democracy, one in which there is a marketplace of ideas and watchdogs ensuring authority does not go unchecked. At the same time, it has underscored the important work we do here at Maxwell to foster engaged citizens who, prepared with a breadth of knowledge in the social sciences, seek to advance civil discourse and improve understanding on a range of national and international issues.

If what’s happening in Russia seems too distant or removed from our experience, there are myriad reminders of the threats to democracy and discourse close to home.

Here in the U.S., we continue to face the impacts of deep political divide and growing distrust in governmental institutions, exacerbated by the widespread dissemination of false information and the delegitimization of factual reports by the mainstream media as “fake news.” We’ve lost our way in having dialogue that builds understanding, even if it does not lead to agreement. The racially motivated shooting at a Buffalo supermarket and subsequent murder of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, were immediately followed by media reports reflecting more divide than discourse about pressing topics such as gun control, mental health and school security. Increasingly, information is curated to support one’s position with little regard to its scientific or research-backed legitimacy, thus limiting opportunities for understanding and problem solving.

Syracuse University is uniquely positioned to create a space to address these issues with research, instruction and public dialogue. I’m pleased to share that, in partnership with the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, the Maxwell School will soon launch the Syracuse University Institute for Democracy, Journalism and Citizenship in Washington, D.C.

The institute will serve as a catalyst for independent, evidence-based research; a platform for public education and dialogue; and a hub of student-centered instruction and experiential opportunities. It leverages a longstanding relationship between our two schools.

Through the years, we’ve reported in the pages of this magazine numerous stories of Maxwell alumni who have become successful journalists, some with a dual degree from Newhouse. While their paths differ, they often report a shared sentiment that a background in the social sciences—political science, history, international relations, economics and more—has helped them push deeper, ask better questions and write impactful stories. Ken Auletta ’65 M.A. (PSc), one of the honorees at our inaugural Awards of Excellence event this past April (see page 8), told us, “I view journalism as public service—it’s a public calling, the way government is, and you have a responsibility to report the closest version of the truth you can. One of the essential checks and balances for government—or for anyone—is the press.”

The institute's location in the nation’s capital will provide front-row opportunities for our students and enhance our already strong presence. Washington is home to Maxwell’s largest alumni network outside of New York state, and our Washington, D.C., programs include top practitioners (read about our scholar-in-residence on page 5 and teaching additions on pages 28-29).

This is the Syracuse University and Maxwell School way: We confront the pressing issues of our time with initiatives aimed at bringing transformative change with collaboration, diverse viewpoints, research and world-class experiential learning opportunities. At the heart of these efforts are our students. They bring hope for a brighter future—a world where there is more discourse and less divide.


Cursive signature of Dean David Van Slyke

 

 

 

 

David M. Van Slyke

Dean, Maxwell School

Louis A. Bantle Chair in Business and Government Policy

 

 

Published in the Summer 2022 issue of the Maxwell Perspective


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