August 29, 2011 — While partisan rancor, uncivil discourse and sound-bite punditry define the American conversation today, the Miller Center at the University of Virginia takes a different approach that is non-partisan, analytical – and calm.
"One of the things we're finding is that our non-partisan status and the recommendations that flow from our historical approach to these issues" appeal to policymakers, said former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, who is beginning his sixth year as the center's director and CEO.
"The faculty and staff are superb, and the problems out there confronting us are challenging," said Baliles, who served as governor from 1986 to 1990. "But the audience is growing for the approach that we're taking, and that's what makes this place so intellectually stimulating."
The Miller Center's fall lineup of speakers, programs and conferences will cover a range of national and international issues – along with a bit of U.Va. flavor.
Its audience includes members of the U.Va. and surrounding communities who attend the free events, as well as students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends who follow the presentations on the Miller Center's website and on programs broadcast nationwide on PBS.
U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan will kick off the popular Miller Center Forum series on Sept. 7, speaking at 11 a.m. on "Higher Education as the Engine of the American Economy." Now in her second year as president, Sullivan is the author or co-author of six books and more than 50 scholarly articles. Her most recent research focuses on who files for bankruptcy and why.
On Sept. 9, Melvyn P. Leffler will speak on "Rethinking 9/11: Its Impact on U.S. Foreign Policy." Leffler, a Miller Center faculty associate and the Edward Stettinius Professor of History in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences, co-edited the book "In Uncertain Times: American Foreign Policy after the Berlin Wall and 9/11" with his U.Va. colleague, Jeffrey Legro, also a Miller Center faculty associate and Randolph P. Compton Professor of World Politics. The book is based in part on an October 2009 Miller Center conference, "When Walls Came Down: Berlin, 9/11, and U.S. Strategy in Uncertain Times."
Other fall speakers include noted journalists Jim Lehrer on Oct. 7 and Bob Woodward on Oct. 24. Veteran reporter and author Evan Thomas will speak Nov. 11.
A more personal view of politics will come Sept. 19 from Janny Scott, a reporter for The New York Times and author of "A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother."
On Thursday, the center will present a program geared toward first-year students, but also open to the public: "Secrets and Traditions" of U.Va., co-sponsored by the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, the University Guide Service, the U.Va. Alumni Association, and the classes of 2012, 2013 and 2014. Tours of the Miller Center will begin at 4:30 p.m., followed by presentations at 5 p.m. and then a panel of fourth-year students who will discuss undergraduate life. (The Miller Center's other direct connections to U.Va. students include its annual intern program, which involves about 20 U.Va. graduate and undergraduate students.)
Fall events in Washington, where the Miller Center has an office, will include the David R. Goode National Transportation Policy Conference, scheduled for Nov. 29-30, and the 2011 Mortimer Caplin Conference on the World Economy, to be held Dec. 8. Previous versions of these conferences drew significant attention from news organizations and political leaders.
The fall transportation conference will follow up on a previous conference, which produced a report that included recommendations for transportation policy reform. President Obama held up that report last year at a White House Rose Garden press conference and urged Congress to consider the report’s recommendations.
"The recommendations have been well-received," Baliles said. "I think in the week after the presidential press conference, there were 860 stories published around the country on the report itself. That number has increased substantially since then."
The relevance of the December conference on the world economy is equally significant, Baliles said.
"It will be about the relationship between tax reform, deficit control and global competitiveness, and it will be happening at a time when Congress is taking up the recommendations of the 'super committee,'" the 12-member congressional body set up this month to focus on the U.S. debt and deficit. "So the timing of the conference is exquisite," he said.
In past programs on finance issues, "We were a little bit ahead of developments politically, and I think that's where we are with this conference in December," Baliles said.
Other fall initiatives will draw attention to scholars at the center. "Governing at Home: The White House and Domestic Policymaking," a book by scholars Russell Riley and Michael Nelson, will be released next month. It's based on a symposium held at the center in 2009.
Also in September, the Miller Center's incoming class of fellows will participate in a conference that includes public events on the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and on the 1961 Kennedy administration crises dealing with Cuba and Berlin.
The diverse range of programs seems likely to attract continued media interest. This year, the Miller Center drew international attention for its National War Powers Commission and its study of relations among the U.S., China and Taiwan. In Virginia this summer, Baliles wrote about the need for more college graduates, and Waldo Jaquith, the web developer for the Miller Center, began work on his State Decoded website to make Virginia laws more accessible on the Internet.
A $165,000 grant supporting Jaquith's work was announced shortly after Miller Center scholars received a $130,000 grant to fund additional research for transcripts and audio recordings of conversations by Johnson and Nixon.
Successful fundraising continues to advance the Miller Center's mission; a recently completed capital campaign raised $43 million, exceeding its goal by more than $3 million and finishing a year earlier than planned. The center is "ever-vigilant about containing our costs while using the power of big ideas to raise the financial support that we need," Baliles said.
The Miller Center recently redesigned its website, which provides a schedule of upcoming events, live and archived event webcasts, and other resources. Baliles said that the site ranks among the top 5 percent of most-visited in the world, receiving twice the Internet traffic as those of leading think tanks in Washington. The "American President" portion of the website alone receives 3 million visits annually.
Looking ahead, Baliles said that one future emphasis could involve public financial literacy. He said there is a "patchwork of programs" put out by government and non-profit organizations, but added, "There's no systematic approach."
The Miller Center's overall approach is to engage the public in crucial national issues without choosing political sides. "In our recent public dialogue in the country, it would appear that we have lost much of our ability to engage in critical thinking, and we sometimes are too quick to condemn those with whom we disagree," Baliles said.
"I think the focus of the Miller Center is to present these challenges in ways that stress civility and stress non-partisanship," he said, while showing the importance of history "in developing practical solutions."