‘A Thoughtful and Rigorous Approach to Public Affairs’
Christopher Chapp arrived on campus to begin a tenure-track teaching position in the St. Olaf Political Science Department the same year the college launched the Institute for Freedom and Community.
Nearly a decade later, he’s the new director of the Institute, which hosts public programs on important political and social issues and supports the Public Affairs Conversation (PACON). He’s making it a priority to engage more students and faculty members in this work.
“My goal is to harness the energy of the St. Olaf community to promote a thoughtful and rigorous approach to public affairs,” he noted last summer as he prepared to begin his new role.
In his first semester at helm of the Institute, Chapp organized events examining the state of democracy, the American dream, and the impact of disinformation on elections. This spring the Institute will host a speaker series on “The Challenge of Criminal Justice Reform in America.” He recently sat down to discuss where he hopes to take it next.
The Institute for Freedom and Community’s mission is to encourage free inquiry and meaningful debate, explore diverse perspectives, and foster constructive dialogue. Why is that work so important?
Free inquiry and debating big ideas are and have always been the centerpiece of a liberal arts education. Without the ability to question assumptions and interrogate evidence, the work we do as educators becomes stale, and we close off the potential for innovation.
Is this work more urgent now than it has been in the past?
There is something unique about 2023 — these values are being challenged in different ways. For example, with sophisticated social media algorithms governing the news content many of us encounter online, it is easy to get siloed in an information environment where we are not regularly challenged. We get used to seeing things we agree with. This can be a “comfortable” position to be in, and we can easily become accustomed to agreement at the expense of a rich diversity of ideas. This is why the Institute is so important. It adds richness to the intellectual environment on campus through varied ideas set in creative tension.
The Institute has been around for nearly a decade. What is your vision for its future?
The Institute has created important programming and valuable opportunities for students and faculty. I intend to build on successes like public affairs internships for students and reading groups for faculty. In the future, I hope we can grow in two areas.
First, I want IFC programming to become more aligned with the academic program. I hope that the Institute can help amplify the amazing work students and faculty are already doing in the classroom.
Second, I want Institute programming to become even closer to the student experience. When we bring a speaker to campus, the visit should not be limited to a lecture — it should also involve roundtable discussions with students, opportunities for vocational mentorship, and interactions in the classroom. For example, when Vox journalist Sean Illing was on campus not too long ago, he also met with a small group of journalism students about career development and the future of media. These types of interactions are really powerful, and we’ll continue to build these opportunities into campus visits. Making programing close to the student experience also means developing topics on policy issues that resonate with our campus community.
What does “success” at the IFC look like?
To me, success is when I can walk through the Cage the day after an Institute event and hear students debating the merits of a claim made by the speaker. We need to promote public conversations that make an impact.
What’s your academic background?
I am a political scientist. I primarily research American politics, and I specialize in campaigns and elections, public opinion, and political communication. In addition to teaching courses on American politics, I also teach courses on research methods. “Methodology” has a reputation for putting some folks to sleep, but it is actually really important! Debates in politics and the academy often begin with varied approaches to how we acquire knowledge, which leads to really different claims about the way society should be structured. This doesn’t mean that we would all agree if we just approached problems with the same methodology toolkit. However, I do think that being really explicit about the assumptions we are using when we make a claim can help us have an understanding of viewpoints different than our own.
How did your background prepare you to lead the Institute?
My background is pretty interdisciplinary. As an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I double majored in English and Political Science. I was also deeply involved with a program called “Integrated Liberal Studies” that had a mission pretty similar to that of the IFC — it took an intentionally interdisciplinary approach to topics ranging from botany to literature to politics. Interdisciplinarity is part of the IFC charge, and is really at the core of how I understand my role.
What made you interested in leading the Institute?
This Institute is positioned to play an important role on this campus, from facilitating important campus-wide conversations to creating student research and internship opportunities. I love being at the intersection of all of these important activities. My approach to each of these varied responsibilities is still that of a teacher. For example, when thinking about a speaker coming to campus, I ask myself questions like “How will this campus guest fit with the work students are doing in their classes?” and “How can we structure an event to facilitate critical reflection?”
What are you reading right now?
I’m in the middle of a few things right now! I’m working through a number of technical papers on crime and policing to help prepare for a spring speaker series the Institute is hosting. I’m also reading a book called Radical American Partisanship by Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason. It is an important addition to an ongoing conversation in political science on “political extremism/polarization” in the U.S. and what to do about it. The book has its detractors, who I am reading as well. It is a really important debate, and one the IFC may take on in the future — political polarization isn’t going to go away any time soon, and I think our campus can be a model for how to unpack this issue in a responsible way. Finally, I should add that I also love fiction, and I’m usually in the middle of a “page turner” spy/espionage novel.
What’s your favorite spot on campus?
I love this question! The Political Science Department home is Holland Hall, and I love spending time in that building. I also love sitting on the picnic tables at the top of the Hill. Sometimes in the fall I hold office hours outside. I like to bring my dog, who loves hanging out with students during office hours.
What else should people know about you?
I live with my family in Northfield and really love being a part of this community. I also have a lot of interests outside of politics and public affairs. I love music and am an aspiring rock ‘n roll guitarist. I also spend a lot of time lifting weights (powerlifting) and hope to one day teach the weightlifting class at St. Olaf!