Gift to fund formation of new center at Catawba College that focuses on NC politics
Published 12:10 am Sunday, October 8, 2023
SALISBURY — An anonymous $360,000 gift to Catawba College is dedicated to the founding of a new center whose focus and mission is on studying North Carolina politics and promoting public service.
Politics professor Dr. Michael Bitzer will lead the center. Bitzer envisions an academic center devoted to involving students, as well as the greater community, in civic engagement and public service, with a focus on the politics of North Carolina.
“North Carolina is a battleground state for national elections and reflects so many national political dynamics,” Bitzer said. “Catawba students are genuinely interested in public service because so many of them feel a calling to public service.”
“This center will help our students and others better understand the political dynamics of North Carolina and give them a chance to explore public service opportunities to perhaps be the future public servants and leaders for our communities, state, and maybe even national government.”
Upon learning of the large donation, Bitzer said he was “stunned.”
“My first reaction was stunned that we have that kind of support to kick start this initiative,” Bitzer said. “We are very humbled and pleased to have that vote of confidence.”
Initial activities of the center will include a speaker series, as well as a fellows program to support students pursuing internships at the federal, state and local levels.
Additionally, the center will provide them with financial resources to explore the vocation of public service. Other initiatives include a summer workshop for high school civics teachers, focused on professional development sessions about American and North Carolina civic and political literacy to meet the state standards. Other projects may include a website housing North Carolina political data as a public resource and opportunities for cross-collaboration with several other academic departments at Catawba.
“It is important to advance a civic mindset in fellow citizens. We all recognize the polarized environment we are in, but citizens need to have informed and deliberative conversations about self-governance and the idea of forming that ‘more perfect union,’” Bitzer said. “There is a need to put civility back into civil discourse. We don’t all have to agree, but we must understand how our differences come about and, more importantly, where there are potential agreements in our society and governance.”
With stark polarization permeating today’s political ecosystem, Bitzer feels this project is important now more than ever.
“The level and depth of the partisan polarization that is in our current political environment really command a sense of do we want to continue to further divide or do we want to try and bridge some commonality to where we can get things done,” Bitzer said. “In our current political system, there is such deep division that if we can’t talk to one another, we cannot solve issues and problems.”
He sees the Center’s potential to create both a space and place where ideas can be engaged in with reason and respect, where the emphasis is not on the causes of conflict but on coming to the table together to find solutions.
“It is not about advocacy, but rather bringing cross-partisan ideas to various topics of public interest, and potentially serving as a bridge for finding commonality and public purpose towards serving the common good,” Bitzer said.
For now, Bitzer said the center will operate out of his office.
“If demand grows or there is a need for a bigger physical space, that would be up to the administration down the road,” Bitzer said. “Right now, we are just starting small.”
Through 2024, the center will work with the commission on the Future of N.C. Elections are a cross-partisan effort whose focus includes understanding how the state’s elections are administered fairly, safely and securely. The commission will meet on Catawba’s campus this month.
The 60 members of the commission, of which Bitzer is one, will form small subgroups, each working with a different topic. The subgroups will host various meetings and hearings, gathering information and witness testimonies, and issue a post-2024 election report describing its findings on N.C. elections and possible policy recommendations for public information and consideration.
Bitzer expressed his sincere gratitude for the generous gift that will enable the hiring of an additional political science faculty member and an administrative assistant, who initially will provide support for the commission and then transition to support the center as it develops.
The gift funding also helps kickstart programmatic activities for greater exposure to this new initiative at Catawba College.