IFC Alumni Conversations: Nick Gonnerman ’19
St. Olaf College alumnus Nick Gonnerman ’19 is the project assistant for the Campus Free Expression Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He was also an Institute for Freedom and Community Student Associate while at St. Olaf.
As part of the IFC Alumni Conversations series, which highlights alumni whose work aligns with the Institute’s mission, Nick sat down for a conversation with Assistant Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Erik Grell ’05.
As an undergrad at St. Olaf you led a team of students to produce Rebuttal, a debate-style publication remarkable for its thoughtful presentation of normative viewpoints on critical issues. Can you discuss the path that led you to pursue this project?
One of the things that excited me about a St. Olaf education was the opportunity to hear from people who saw the world in a different way than me. While many classes provided the chance to hear from diverse peers and professors, the most rigorous experience of open exchange took place in my junior year thanks to the Institute-supported Public Affairs Conversation (PACON). Those classes, with their respectful back-and-forth exchange, really excited me.
One book that we read, Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, particularly got the class energized. The book featured several writers articulating a perspective they fiercely believed in and arguing against one another in a fair and honest way. I thought yes! —we need even more of this, but at the student level.
While many classes provided the chance to hear from diverse peers and professors, the most rigorous experience of open exchange took place in my junior year thanks to the Institute-supported Public Affairs Conversation (PACON).
So, some friends and I conceptualized a student-written, student-designed, and student-run publication where Oles could either submit a pair of papers that debated a topic or submit a single paper for our editors and writers to counter. With much help from my friends, I brought together a group of 16 students from a wide background of academic interests. We also secured financial support from the Institute, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the Collegiate Network.
Editorial meetings were lively and engaging, at times even feisty. This energy came from our sense that most students felt a real hunger for new ideas and perspectives. After months of work we published more than 350 copies of an 85-page journal and distributed it to students for free. I am pleased to say that we ran out of copies after only a few hours.
The Bipartisan Policy Center is a think tank in Washington D.C. that focuses on bringing together opposing political views and turning those disagreements into effective policy. BPC’s work recognizes that politics is a competitive and messy process, but that with the right focus and norms, great things can result. As a BPC initiative, the Campus Free Expression Project fits into this picture by developing programs and curricula that encourage a culture of open-mindedness and free exchange on campus in order to prepare graduates for effective citizenship and leadership.
I am beyond fortunate to be able to work at BPC, a job that I secured through my connections with the Institute. Even in my entry-level position, I have the chance to create content that contributes to an active policy conversation. The articles I write, events I help organize, and even the more mundane tasks in their own small way advance my beliefs in bipartisanship and pluralism.
As part of your work at BPC, you authored an article titled “What the Safe Space Debate is Missing?” Can you elaborate more on this?
Debates about free expression have nuance, which is unfortunately sometimes lost in the public square. Goading “snowflakes” or declaring that free expression is “dehumanizing” and “harmful” not only misses the point, but also shuts down opportunities for multiple perspectives to have valid input. The same effect happens during discussions of safe spaces: either you’re talking about intellectual holdouts for weak students, or places without which students can’t survive their harmful campuses. Neither of those narratives seems right.
Debates about free expression have nuance, which is unfortunately sometimes lost in the public square. Goading “snowflakes” or declaring that free expression is “dehumanizing” and “harmful” not only misses the point, but also shuts down opportunities for multiple perspectives to have valid input.
Both sides do themselves a disservice by categorizing safe spaces obtusely. First, it’s quite hard to pin a specific definition to the term “safe space” (a problem I try to resolve in the article), which means that these arguments often talk past one another.
Second, there is another way to view safe spaces that addresses the needs of proponents and the concerns of critics. Campus itself shouldn’t be one giant safe space, as some seem to propose; rather, campuses should house many different safe spaces. One space is insufficient to provide for a student body of thousands. A pluralistic and nuanced approach gets us closer to a solution that could, with the right tweaking, work for everybody.
Do you have any sense for how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted or might impact discussions surrounding free expression on campus?
COVID-19 has strained free expression in several ways. For example, students who might have spoken up in class might not do so if their online platforms make judging classmates’ reactions difficult or allows others to record their comments. Other students who would have taken to the quad to protest or to construct a display may no longer do so since they’re not on campus. At St. Olaf, COVID-19 disruptions caused Rebuttal staff to postpone publication until next year.
Another important factor to broadening the number of views you engage with is to make friends with as diverse a group of people as you can. Make an effort to talk to people from across the political spectrum.
But while the pandemic has changed how students engage with their peers, as I write in the article linked to the question, students remain committed to and optimistic about the values of free expression. The students I have spoken to remain dedicated to making college life academically adventurous and diverse during this pandemic moment and well into the future.
What advice might you offer to first-year Oles interested in public affairs and political dialogue?
My most meaningful college moments came from engaging with people who had a perspective I had not considered before. To get the most out of college, try putting yourself in a position that increases the chance of engaging with diversity in all its forms.
PACON and Institute activities and events offer wonderful spaces to learn from people who might not share your worldview, as do classes in departments that you normally might not venture into. I value my major’s courses, but I also loved classes on ceramics, democracy, judo, and social work (to name just a few). Take advantage of the liberal arts whenever you can.
Another important factor to broadening the number of views you engage with is to make friends with as diverse a group of people as you can. Make an effort to talk to people from across the political spectrum. Establishing these connections will be easier if you focus on growing friendships for the right reasons: you like the person’s humor, or kindness, or passion, or any other valuable trait that transcends your perceived differences. Your on-campus network and your life after graduation will be richer as a result.
And while you’re at it, why not submit something to get published in Rebuttal?
What are your plans for the future and how did experiences at St Olaf College, and more specifically your involvement with the Institute for Freedom and Community, help prepare you for the road ahead?
I owe so much to the Institute for helping me grow as an intellectual and as a person. The PACON classes I took laid a framework of normative views, from Rawls to Nozick, that sparked my curiosity and opened new avenues of thinking. And the discussions I participated in showed me what it feels like to stand up for something I believe in, while at the same time looking for points of connection with others who don’t share my convictions.
My St. Olaf education also prepared me for the work force, especially my time as a member of the Institute Advisory Board and as a student associate with the Director’s Council. These experiences expanded my professional network and introduced me to skills I would use directly after graduation.
At the moment, I am looking forward to law school (in the application process now) and a legal career. I can’t help but think that the lessons I have learned by being a part of the Institute will help me to see the world in a more holistic, open-minded, and engaged way.
Established at St. Olaf in 2014, the Institute for Freedom and Community encourages free inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues among students, faculty, and the general public. To that end, the Institute sponsors a range of programming opportunities, in addition to a fall and spring lecture series, to further cultivate civil discourse within the context of the liberal arts.