When political pundit Ann Coulter came to Notre Dame in April 2014 to give a public lecture for the College Republicans, controversy sparked.

Protests were staged. The official student newspaper, the Observer, hosted heated viewpoint debates. Professors addressed the event in their classrooms, and university president Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, spoke to the controversy in a campus-wide email.

Amid all this, a small group of students came together and decided that the Coulter episode had revealed a toxic atmosphere for discourse—and they had to do something about that.

“The Coulter controversy demonstrated that our campus’s political environment was not merely poisonous, but that its level of rhetoric was itself debased,” recalls Patrick Kearney, a 2016 graduate and member of that small group. So Kearney and his friends formed the College Moderates in the hope of creating a space for more reasoned dialogue.

Shortly after its inception the group changed its name to BridgeND. Billing itself as a forum in which political opposites could ‘meet in the middle,’ the group sponsored a series of “negotiations” at which participants examined student loan reform and eventually arrived at a bipartisan-crafted policy proposal.

Attendance was waning, though, and so in the spring of 2015 freshman Roge Karma ran for group president and proposed a change in BridgeND’s operations: it would scrap policy proposals and instead focus not on attracting or forming political moderates but on viewpoint diversity and opening lines of communication and argument between the left and right.

Fall 2015 was the beginning of BridgeND as it now exists. Tocqueville Associate Professor of Religion & Public Life and Director of the Tocqueville Program Phillip Muñoz invited BridgeND’s leadership to pitch the retooled group to his Civil Liberties class and even allowed Karma and fellow officer Mimi Teixeira to run one class like a Bridge meeting. In these meetings members would purposefully challenge each other’s views and lay their own on the table while being intentional about being and becoming better arguers, thinkers, and listeners.

BridgeND’s leaders say that although Bridge finds fault with protests aimed at shutting down unwelcome perspectives, it is not just another “free speech” group. Christian McGrew, BridgeND’s president during 2017-2018, explains that “the overarching idea is that, granted the unique right captured in the First Amendment, it is incumbent on us as citizens to use it responsibly.” 

Bridge aims to cultivate what it calls “responsible discourse”: a practice in which the purpose of argument is to discover truth and which fosters resistance to confirmation bias and partisan tribalism. Not only should a “discourse community” respect its members’ right to free speech, Karma argues, but those members have responsibilities to use their legal freedom to speech to practice virtuous discourse. “Our initiative is just as much about rebranding free speech as it is about promoting it,” he summarizes.

In 2015-2016 Bridge began to flourish. According to Karma, who continued to serve in a leadership capacity through his graduation in 2018, it became the first student organization to be awarded its own column in the Observer—and quickly made itself heard, publishing an article lambasting the student government’s Diversity Council for expelling one of its members for writing an op-ed deemed intolerant. For the first time in years Bridge brought together the College Democrats and College Republicans to participate in an event. BridgeND drew more than 150 new students at the year-opening Activities Night, and has over 500 members on its email listserv.

Its campus programming expanded as well, led by two signature types of event. The first is the “Melting Pot.” These forums bring together leaders from a host of campus entities representing an array of viewpoints to discuss a hot-button issue. The first Melting Pot, on immigration, drew nearly 250 students. The Constitutional Studies minor co-sponsored a second, on income inequality, that was just as popular.

The second signature event is “Political Speed Dating,” in which participants rotate quickly throughout the room, being allowed only a small window within which to exchange views. The event sold out and its October 2017 iteration was featured as a front-cover story by the Christian Science Monitor. 

Other events included discussions of gun-rights legislation, abortion, and professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem, as well as a Tocqueville Program co-sponsored scholarly debate on “The Future of Marriage, Gay Rights, and Religious Freedom.”

Programs such as these are the heart of BridgeND, Karma explained, because the organization targets students as the agents of renewal for what it hopes will be a bottom-up improvement of campus cultures. Rather than protesting administrators or demanding changes in campus policies, Bridge is pursuing a grassroots, long-game project.

BridgeND quickly began drawing national interest. Friends of one of the original co-founders wrote asking if they could start a chapter at UC-Berkeley, which was being racked by riots and free speech controversies. Students at University of Colorado-Boulder and Arizona State were interested, too. Together the leaders of these chapters decided to form BridgeUSA, an umbrella organization that assists the dozen or so chapters getting off the ground across the country, including at schools like USC, Rutgers, and Dartmouth.

Karma serves as Director of Chapter Development for BridgeUSA, leading a team of four “chapter development consultants” comprised of Notre Dame and UC-Berkeley students and graduates who help guide fledgling chapters. Karma explains that unlike some other national organizations with campus chapters, BridgeUSA “operates on a purely Federalist model in that we allow different chapters to adopt the basic model to their specific campus contexts.” The goal is not to utilize chapters for the purpose of a national goal or agenda, he says, but to facilitate and support localized programming suitable to each campus environment. “We provide them with financial backing, personal mentorship, training in student organizing, leadership and coalition building, and connection to our national network,” he explained. Chapter leaders touch base monthly via email and social media to share best practices and discuss new ideas.

BridgeUSA and its member chapters continue to make waves. In 2017 the Washington Post drew attention to a daylong conference on “Free Speech in the Age of Social Media” hosted by Berkeley’s chapter. And in 2018 the Heterodox Academy, an independent membership association of faculty and graduate students committed to championing academic viewpoint diversity, recognized BridgeUSA with the Outstanding Student Group Award in its first annual HxA Open Mind Awards. This award celebrates groups for “making a vital and durable contribution to viewpoint diversity on their campus and other campuses.” BridgeUSA representatives, including Karma, received the award at a June, 2018 conference in New York.

BridgeND’s leadership credit Muñoz and the Constitutional Studies Minor for helping BridgeND really take off. When McGrew learned that the Christian Science Monitor would be covering the Political Speed Dating event, he had to scramble to pull together something impressive. Muñoz and Tocqueville Program assistant Jen Smith came to the rescue. “We have Professor Muñoz and Jen Smith more than anyone else to thank for their support with this event,” he says. More generally, “on a logistical level Professor Muñoz is extremely generous with expending resources to empower us to spark productive campus political dialogue.”

Karma and Teixeira agreed. “In terms of supporting BridgeND, Professor Muñoz has been amazing,” Karma says. “He has helped us sponsor major events, helped us generate ideas for discussion meetings, and provided funding for activities that the university wouldn’t fund. We couldn’t do what we do without his support.”

You can learn more about BridgeUSA and its campus chapters by visiting www.bridgeusa.org.

Written by Michael Bradley.