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The Menard Center: A place to flourish civically and intellectually

A student speaks with Abel Stose, chief of police of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, whose visit to Oxford was sponsored by the Menard Center.
A student speaks with Abel Stose, chief of police of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, whose visit to Oxford was sponsored by the Menard Center.

High school teenagers gather in a circle, engaged in passionate discussions of contemporary politics. Six college students work with a nonprofit to provide aid for displaced refugees. Another student assists a summer camp for homeless children, and another creates a documentary about the importance of public libraries.

These scenes may appear to belong in a civic utopia, but in reality, they are much more local — all have been the work of Miami University’s Menard Family Center for Democracy.

John Forren has been the executive director of the Menard Center since its inception in 2019, as well as chair and associate professor in the Department of Justice and Community Studies and a faculty affiliate of the Department of Political Science.

Forren said the center was created to involve everyone — students, faculty, staff and the surrounding community — in politics and civic affairs. 

“One of the things we were aiming to do from the outset was to figure out ways to get people who may disagree about political or ideological issues to interact with one another,” Forren said, “to share ideas with one another in a civil manner.”

Photo by Provided by John Forren | The Miami Student
Ohio Republican candidates in Armstrong Student Center during a televised debate hosted by the Menard Center

The Menard Center also strives to promote freedom of expression and civil discourse, ideals rooted in “the traditional democratic idea that healthy, democratic communities require people to talk with one another and engage with one another and compromise,” Forren said.

The center offers several functions that support this effort, including campus programming and sponsoring scholarships, civic engagement work and faculty research.

In recent years, the Menard Center has brought in guest speakers from diverse backgrounds and ideologies and even hosted televised debates, such as last year’s Republican primary debate, which took place in Armstrong Student Center.

Forren said the center’s funding comes from two primary donors: the Charles Koch Foundation and the Menard Family, owners of the Menards hardware store.

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Photo by Provided by John Forren | The Miami Student
Students, faculty and community members attend a panel discussion about January 6 and democracy

Housed jointly in Miami’s College of Arts & Science and the College of Liberal Arts and Applied Science, the center’s work spans across academic departments. Students who get scholarships from the Menard Center come from a variety of majors, ranging from journalism and political science to education and film studies.

“It’s not just a political science-focused thing at all,” Forren said. “We’re doing something in every division of the university, trying to reach the student body more broadly.”

One recent project funded by the center took a group of students to London to work with Ukrainian Action, a nonprofit that provides aid to Ukrainian refugees. Students spent two weeks learning about how nonprofits work in the UK and Europe, attending Zoom calls with people on the ground in Ukraine and researching other NGOs and ways to increase Ukrainian Action’s impact.

“It was a really cool experience because I had wanted to be more involved to help the Ukrainian people but didn’t really have a way until this opportunity,” Cameron Tiefenthaler, a senior political science and business analytics major, said. “It’s an amazing, volunteer-run nonprofit and was such a selfless project that we got to be part of, which was really humbling.”

The Menard Center paid for the students’ travel, hotel accommodations and other expenses for the two weeks the students spent in London.

As President of JANUS Forum and former Secretary of Government Relations in Miami’s Associated Student Government (ASG), Tiefenthaler has worked with the Menard Center with several different events, such as assisting in programming and with Dr. Forren’s research.

“It’s really great to expose students to democracy in action,” Tiefenthaler said. “What does it mean to be civically engaged beyond the four walls of a classroom? It really tries to expand what it means to be involved in your community and instill a sense of learning beyond a course curriculum.”

Another experience offered by the Menard Center is the High School Civic Scholars Program, which gives high schoolers around the region an opportunity to develop civic skills and connect with other student leaders. The students are also able to take Miami courses offered and funded by the Menard Center during the school year for college credit.

Photo by Provided by John Forren | The Miami Student
Miami student journalists have lunch and chat with Linda Greenhouse, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, about her experiences and the importance of student journalism.

Kathleen Knight Abowitz, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, works with the Menard Center to operate the Menard Civic Fellows Program, which offers Miami students internships with a variety of educational and community-based organizations.

“I consider this program something that is connected with my interest in democratic education and preparing students to be leaders in civic spaces,” Knight Abowitz said. “I think it’s essential that universities provide lots of opportunities for students to learn how to be leaders, not just in business or in the workplace, but in civic life.”

The internship requires students to take a spring sprint seminar course to prepare them for their summer work, as well as a one-credit summer course. The Menard Center pays for the course tuition and provides a $2,500 scholarship to support students who can’t forgo wages for the whole summer.

Based on a new state law passed in Ohio’s biennial Senate budget, Miami will soon have to add another civic center on campus. Senate Bill 117 mandates the creation of “intellectual diversity centers” at five state universities including Miami, the University of Toledo and The Ohio State University. 

Forren said he doesn’t know how the new budget will impact the Menard Center but, in his view, the more voices and opportunities for civic involvement on campus, the better. 

“We’re not making them Democrats or Republicans or whatever. We’re helping them learn the skills and habits of citizenship and paying attention to politics,” Forren said. “One of those skills is learning how to talk across political divides, and I think there’s enough evidence that Americans are losing that ability.”

Forren said the Menard Center will “keep doing what we’re doing” and see how the state mandate develops.

Knight Abowitz said she’s amazed by what Forren and the center have accomplished, but would like to see more experiential programming.

“It would be great to expand to more leadership and engagement opportunities,” Knight Abowitz said. “Big speakers are good for classes, but they’re not things that I think move students to develop their own growth as civically engaged people and leaders.”