Colleague of the Week: Doug Sprei

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If ever there is a place that’s synonymous with contentious clashes of ideas, it’s the University of California, Berkeley.

In late 2019, it was all that and more for a Braver Angels college debate whose topic had been chosen by Berkeley students: the future of People’s Park, a space for homeless people and others in the community where the university wanted to build housing.

Walking toward the campus to co-chair the event, Doug Sprei wondered if he and April Lawson had thrown a hand grenade into the proceedings. A few days earlier, the BA leaders had received an e-mail from UC Berkeley officials cautioning them that a local community organizer who planned to attend the debate had previously been arrested for agitating on campus.

Sprei’s and Lawson’s solution, worked out in an urgent confab with BA co-founder Bill Doherty: invite the organizer to be an opening speaker. They decided to go for it.

Big deep breath.

Then a big sigh of relief. “The debate unfolded magically,” recalls Sprei. “The community organizer spoke beautifully. So did others. All of that incendiary energy was channeled into the Braver Angels debate format. The format held true.”

Sprei’s day job is as Director of College Partnerships and Multimedia at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a nonprofit that promotes academic excellence, academic freedom, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities. Through ACTA’s partnership with BA’s national debate team, Sprei leads the College Debates and Discourse program – a crucial initiative if future generations are to amplify the depolarization efforts of today.

Sprei crossed paths with BA in early 2018 when Jonathan Rauch, then a BA board member, came to visit ACTA. “As soon as I heard him talk about BA, my heart began to dance,” recalls Sprei. “I felt that BA’s mission intersects with one of our core tenets: building a culture of free expression on college campuses.”

He learned that BA’s debate formats had been designed by April Lawson, and soon he and Lawson were in close contact. BA co-founder David Blankenhorn joined the discussion, and the ideas about a rich college debate initiative really began to percolate. Not long after, the team held a debate at East Tennessee State University, followed by an equally successful event at American University. “Those events suggested that students and faculty around the nation are eager for respectful, depolarizing discourse,” says Sprei.

Today, the program is “blossoming fast,” in Sprei’s words. Demand is soaring, with outreach coming not only from faculty (especially those teaching subjects like civics and political science) eager to help students embrace viewpoint diversity, but also from student leaders themselves. BA and ACTA have brought in a third partner, BridgeUSA, a student-driven non-profit, entirely aligned with BA’s concerns about political polarization, whose mission is to develop “the next generation of engaged, informed, and constructive citizens.”

Together with Manu Meel, BridgeUSA’s CEO, Sprei and Lawson have learned how to tailor debates to the specifics of college milieus: private classroom or campus-focused events; giving the students as much ownership of the debate as possible; and supporting them with proven tools for organizing and smoothly running debates. They have also learned how to build an effective campus cohort – faculty plus students together, with a bias toward action, regardless of whether it was a professor or a student leader who reached out to the BA-ACTA-BridgeUSA partnership. “We’ve developed a collaborative blueprint to make organizing debates efficient, given the time constraints on busy teachers and students,” notes Sprei.

At least as important: the college debate partners have leveraged those core capabilities to submit grant proposals. Substantial funding was recently awarded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations (AVDF) to expand the partners’ efforts and build out the team, and other foundations are signaling strong interest.

The team is gaining institutional supporters as well. Case in point: The Fund for American Studies (TFAS), a non-profit whose programs are geared to teaching the principles of limited government, free-market economics, and honorable leadership to students and young professionals.

TFAS approached the BA-ACTA-BridgeUSA debate leaders earlier this year as it prepared to bring a new batch of about 20 students to the nation’s capital for its DC spring program.
The outcome – a debate whose atmosphere was a world away from the belligerent social-media arena most students are used to – led TFAS to commit to six more debates over the summer for about 300 students in all. Five of the debates were in-person – a format warmly welcomed by the debate group after a year of events on Zoom.

Since Sprei and Lawson teamed up a few years ago, they’ve engaged around 2,000 students from at least 50 colleges, by conservative estimates. “That doesn’t mean we’ve gone deep with 50 colleges,” Sprei emphasizes. “We’re not going after massive scale at this point; it’s more about making sure our debate and discourse programs at a manageable number of campuses are sustainable, with faculty leaders established on each campus and student leaders around them.”

The team’s objective is to engage a diverse set of schools where that’s the case. The AVDF grant stipulates that at least two should have student bodies where at least 50 percent of the next graduating class are low-income or first-generation students. Historically black colleges, large public, and small private institutions will be included. Sprei expects that within two years, 10 to 20 schools will have put down deep roots with BA-formatted debates and will be actively sharing best practices nationwide.

As Braver Angels itself grows, it’s hard to keep everyone up to date with all that’s happening on the college debate front. Many state coordinators and alliance leaders want to reach out to local colleges but have found it tough to connect and engage. So the recent invitation from BA leader Steve Saltwick to have Sprei present to the organization’s state coordinators came at a good time. New conversations are germinating with state alliances in Massachusetts, Texas, and Arkansas, to name a few.

Not surprisingly, all of this activity puts a huge load on Sprei and the team. “I’ve been presenting to colleges and professors literally a couple of times a week,” he says. Requests for the team’s programs keep coming in. Sprei and Lawson are working to recruit and train more BA volunteers as college debate chairs; currently, he, Lawson, Daniel Acosta-Rivas, and Luke Nathan Phillips serve in that role, with occasional pinch hitters. Ideally, the new chairs will be closer to the students’ age – or at least young at heart and super-personable, the better to connect with young people. Also needed: data wonks who can help with pre- and post-debate surveys to gauge the impact of BA-format debates on students.

So if you’d like to join one of BA’s most vibrant initiatives – one whose impact will be felt far into the future – this could be the volunteer opportunity for you. Doug Sprei would love to hear from you. Visit the College Debates and Discourse home page at https://www.goacta.org/initiatives/college-debates/; or email him at dsprei@goacta.org.

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