Stubblefield Institute at Shepherd University
After the past year of 24/7 political and pandemic coverage, it might seem odd to hear David Welch say “we need to talk more about politics, not less.” The director of the Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications at Shepherd University is quick to point out that he means being able to have constructive conversations. Having spent decades in the field of political communications, Welch feels strongly that disagreement is a fundamental element of the process. “Politics will always be rough and tumble. We need to disagree. Politics is part of government and we need constructive debate to lead to better decisions.” Still, Welch noted that he’s been involved with politics long enough to remember that there wasn’t always the dividing line that we see today, where “you think about who you invite over for dinner based on their politics.”
This erosion of civility was on Welch’s mind when Shepherd University graduate David Avella approached him with the idea of a new political institute at the university. Welch describes Avella, a Berkeley County native who built his career working for Republican campaigns, as having a reputation of being a strong partisan who still maintains friendships across the political divide. Welch took the idea to his friend Bill Stubblefield, a retired Admiral and former Berkeley County commissioner, and his wife Bonnie to discuss the concept and brainstorm about how to turn it into a program.
Stubblefield remarked that, “I’ve always been taken aback by the increasing incivility in public discourse. I’m of a generation where that was not very common. I spoke with David a lot, so this started out as just another conversation, with me and Bonnie as a sounding board for the ideas.” Stubblefield noted that he and Bonnie had already been looking to support a program at an academic institution. The two of them decided jointly to provide a generous donation to launch the new institute, based in large part on the meaningful effect it could have at a University the size of Shepherd as well as the respect they both had for the University leaders.
Welch’s first recruit to the board was another Berkeley County native, Scott Widmeyer, a long time veteran of Democratic politics, to set the bipartisan balance of the institute’s board of directors. Stubblefield remarked that, “it’s easy to recruit friends to sit around the table, but David’s ability to reach out to diverse advisors has served us well.” As Welch says, “What we all share is a desire to have a different way to discuss politics.”
A Role for Balance
Welch describes the role the institute can play to bring individuals back into the conversation. He notes that, “there is always heat in politics,” but also adds that “the fight is not the solution.” This sentiment is reflected in the institute’s mission statement — “to serve as an active center for the study and promotion of civil political discourse, inspire intelligent, authentic and constructive debate, and encourage positive civic engagement for both students and the public alike. We seek to demonstrate that when opposing viewpoints are respected and legitimized in ways that avoid negative labeling, alienation, and silencing, it can strengthen our nation’s ability to better challenges and solve problems.”
Officially organized in the spring of 2019 and publicly launched in October 2019 with an event featuring both of West Virginia’s US Senators (one Democrat and one Republican), the institute has quickly rolled out an impressive array of public programs, campus activities, and a new academic concentration in political communications over the past year.
In the Public View
For the public, the American Conversations Series has been the most visible aspect of the institute. Welch noted that the intent of the series is to “demonstrate that people of divergent viewpoints can have healthy conversations.” The inaugural event in November 2019 featured a free-ranging discussion between former Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazil and Mercedes Schlapp, who had recently transitioned from the White House to the Trump re-election campaign. Subsequent events in 2019 and 2020 have focused on topics of modernizing Congress, public healthcare, the CARES Act, and COVID-19 with panelists representing a diversity of left-right political perspectives on these issues.
This fall, Welch began hosting a regular weekly program on WSHC (FM 89.7), the public radio station broadcasting from the Shepherd campus. The Upstream Downstream program airs on Saturdays at 11 am and Welch has been inviting a wide variety of guests to discuss American politics in the framework of the institute’s mission, focusing on highlighting examples of pragmatism over partisan politics.
On the Campus
At its heart, the institute exists to serve Shepherd students. In addition to assisting with the development of a new academic concentration in the Political Science department, the institute has launched the Listen, Learn, Engage initiative to serve all students. Welch framed the objective of the initiative lightheartedly in a popular context — “I don’t ever want to see a Shepherd student be interviewed on the street by a late night TV host and not be able to say who the Vice President is.” He explained more seriously that, “we want to help our students to resist the urge to withdraw and stay quiet. Regardless of their major or field, we want our students to have the confidence to participate in the conversation, to understand that they can do their part, wherever there is a decision-making process. It’s about fostering the ideal of civic awareness and civic engagement.”
Welch describes a key theme of the initiative is to help students understand that ‘the red team (or the blue team) may not always be all right, but also not wrong, that there are elements of truth in both. With so much energy being devoted to pulling us apart, urging us to pick a team, memorize talking points, we want our students to be able to differentiate the arguments from the rhetoric.”
The schedule for upcoming events in the American Conversations Series will be available on the institute’s website, under the “public engagement” tab) and Facebook page. You can hear live broadcasts of the Upstream Downstream radio show at FM 89.7 or WSHCradio.com on Saturdays at 11 am (prior shows can be found on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker and Anchor).By Steve Pearson