Campus Conversations: Modeling a Diverse
Democracy through Deliberative Polling
By Robert Cavalier, professor of philosophy
at Carnegie Mellon University and codirector of the
Southwestern Pennsylvania Program for Deliberative Democracy
Like many liberal democracies, the United States constitutionally
mandates a range of practices to ensure inclusiveness.
Yet we in the United States struggle to realize the
full benefits of diversity, including the value added
to the democratic process when a wide range of perspectives
is considered. The practice of deliberative democracy,
as applied through deliberative polling, promises an
approach that more thoroughly embraces diversity. At
Carnegie Mellon we have explored this model through
a program called “Campus Conversations.”
Deliberative Democracy: Why it Matters
Participants in the Campus Conversations program
participate in a roundtable discussion
The constitutions of liberal democracies typically
provide a model of inclusive engagement, guaranteeing
rights such as universal suffrage. But this model is
not itself sufficient. Although citizens of liberal
democratic societies enjoy the freedom to exercise their
rights, they often see themselves as isolated individuals
who happen to periodically vote (if they choose to do
so). Candidates find these voters easy to manipulate
through media campaigns and sound-bite debates. Missing
from this model is an engaged and educated citizen base—a
base which forms the heart of a “deliberative
Deliberative democracy in a diverse society relies
on open and informed conversations in the forum of ideas.
This conversation requires both inclusive practices
that invite all perspectives into the discussion, and
access to the best information and arguments available.
Advocates of deliberative democracy have adopted these
requirements as a strategy for reaching optimal decisions
about a range of practical problems.
By participating in deliberative democracy, people
become active citizens, engaged in the concerns of their
polis and its development. In contrast to “thin
democracies,” which have roots in the modern liberal
tradition but fail to represent the republican ideals
of an active citizenry, deliberative democracies are
vigorous models of political involvement.
Modeling Deliberative Democracy with Deliberative
By practicing deliberative democracy, constituents develop informed opinions about a select polling topic.
Developed and tested by Professor James Fishkin at
Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative
Democracy, a Deliberative Poll® begins with a random
sample of the population. The group organizing the Deliberative
Poll selects a topic for discussion and sends background
information to members of this group. The individuals
then gather in small groups to discuss the topic amongst
themselves and raise questions with experts. After deliberating
a second time, they respond to a scientific survey.
The result of this poll reflects how the community as
a whole would respond to a particular issue or policy
if that community had time to become informed about
the issue through an intensive deliberative process.
Deliberative polling is nothing less than a new democratic
decision-making process that articulates the informed
voice of the people, potentially raising that voice
to the level of “consulting power.” Deliberative
polls at Carnegie Mellon have given students, faculty,
staff and alumni the opportunity to weigh in on key
issues on campus.
Diversity, Community, and Input
Called Campus Conversations, Carnegie Mellon’s
initiative seeks to (1) highlight the virtues of campus
diversity as it is embedded in the nature of democratic
deliberation, (2) create a sense of campus community
as well as an appreciation for democratic practice and
civic engagement, and (3) provide a tool for dissemination
Carnegie Mellon’s Diversity Advisory Council
supported the deliberative polling model when members
of the council recognized that random sampling techniques
create a diverse community. This community is inclusive
not only in gender, ethnicity, and political and religious
persuasion, but also disciplinarily, bringing together
such diverse groups as fine arts and engineering students.
Faculty, staff, and alumni join students in conversations,
further highlighting the value of multiple perspectives.
These structured roundtable discussions illustrate the
virtues of diversity without didactically describing
them to participants.
Structured dialogue of the kind involved in deliberative
polling brings out the ‘citizen’ in each
of the participants. Participants come to see themselves
as members of a community addressing common problems
rather than as disengaged private individuals. In discussing
the campus art policy or a student bill of rights, participants
model active citizenship.
By combining structured protocols with random sampling,
deliberative polling enhances dissemination and feedback
loops, eliciting more informed responses from a wider
range of constituents. Thus deliberative polling can
immediately improve the quality of planning and decision
making within the campus community, helping planners
and participants understand the trade-offs and compromises
that difficult decisions often require.
Establishing Campus Conversations
Practicing democratic principles is hard work, and
instantiating deliberative democracy is even harder.
But college campuses are uniquely positioned to play
an important role in this process. Not only are colleges
small societies in themselves, they are rich in intellectual
resources and have the facilities necessary to adopt
deliberative polling practices. We at Carnegie Mellon
have developed a handbook to guide campuses through
In the initial stages of the project, it is important
to create a strong group of advocates. Secure a top-notch
advisory board with representatives from all levels
of campus leadership, including the university library
and the alumni association. Appoint a committed individual
as project lead. Recruit social sciences faculty and
faculty with knowledge of document design and development
who, in conjunction with the project lead, will form
the interdisciplinary core of the Campus Conversation
Our first attempt at a Campus Conversation (on unauthorized
file-sharing) drew a small audience. We were satisfied
with the design, but we later decided to expand attendance
to include “convenience samples” (people
we encouraged to attend even if they were not randomly
selected). Our next Campus Conversation (on a proposed
Student Bill of Rights) drew a larger audience and had
the support of the Student Senate. By the time we entered
the second year of Campus Conversations, our attendance
rates had risen steadily, with nearly 100 students,
faculty and staff members, and alumni participating
in a Spring 2007 deliberative poll on Public Art Policy.
We are currently exploring the use of Campus Conversations
to address controversial topics like same-sex marriage
and matters of international concern such as climate
change. These “talking values” deliberative
polls don’t directly affect our institutional
policies, but they do represent critical issues in the
world at large. They can encourage active citizenship
outside of the institution and highlight the broader
advantages of a more deliberative approach.
We in the United States often speak of spreading democracy
around the world, but we ourselves fail to model optimal
democratic practices. We can and should do better. To
this end, Campus Conversations instills a stronger notion
of democracy, and encourages citizens at our colleges
and universities to renew their appreciation for public
deliberation, civic engagement, and diverse perspectives—first
in local contexts, and then in the world at large.
For more information on Carnegie Mellon’s Campus
Conversations and to download a free copy of the handbook,