Democracy Initiative

Democracy Initiative

SIF110 Democracy Initiative

Project Manager: Melody Barnes

The purpose of this project is to position UVA to be the global center for the study of democracy's successes and failures, opportunities and threats, and to influence policies that strengthen democracies worldwide by catalyzing interconnected research and teaching projects. This is a matching fund award, with SIF dollars matching philanthropic dollars 1:1.

BoV Approved: June 2017

Project Dates: 6/21/2017 – 6/20/2022

Funding Awarded: $10,000,000

Executive Summary

The University of Virginia’s establishment in 1817 by three founding fathers of the American republic reflects the institution’s deep historical grounding in the bold experiment with democracy they helped inaugurate.  Today, that shared history uniquely positions the University to be the global center for the study of democracy’s successes and failures, opportunities and threats, and to influence policies that strengthen democracies worldwide. The Democracy Initiative at UVA is an ambitious, interdisciplinary research and teaching enterprise that recognizes the world’s urgent need for such a center, and represents the University’s determination to lead the way.

Today’s democracies—old and new alike—face major challenges. These include poverty, joblessness and inequality; population migrations across borders; eroding support for democratic institutions and norms; tensions over religion, race, and gender role change; corruption; pressures of food and water shortages; and a changing media environment that simultaneously empowers authoritarian leaders and protesting crowds. Sustaining democracies in the face of these challenges is not easy, but neither was building one where it did not exist. Just as the founding fathers studied political theory, history, and literature to inform their vision for a new democracy, the faculty and students of the University of Virginia today are determined to lead the conversation about how to sustain, enrich, and more deeply realize the promise of democracy in the face of daunting contemporary challenges.  

By launching the Democracy Initiative, the University of Virginia seeks to catalyze a series of interconnected research and teaching projects that study how democracies have fared in their efforts to achieve legitimacy, stability, civil equality, accountability, prosperity, and resilience in the face of contemporary and past challenges.  Cognizant of the intertwined histories of UVA and the ongoing American democratic experiment, we are also devoted to fostering an academic environment that itself fundamentally embodies democratic principles of accessibility and inclusivity.  Our vision is for UVA to become the “Davos of Democracy,” emerging as the recognized pinnacle of integrated research, teaching, and public engagement on democracy at a global scale.

Current Status: Active


The PAC has reviewed this project twice, in September 2019 and September 2020. The reviews were both highly favorable and cited significant achievements over the course of the award period. The Project Manager and team demonstrated the tremendous strides they have made in achieving the original goals. Within the first year and a half of the award, the maximum SIF match was pledged. The Project Manager provided detailed reporting on an extensive list of activities, both past and future, designed to focus on national and international issues of democracy, as well as specifically to Charlottesville with respect to historical and more recent events. Accomplishments and events have been shared that speak to how they have and plan to focus on the pillars described in the original proposal: “The DI will examine a range of institutional, economic and cultural issues associated with democratic principles and democratic culture in the U.S. and around the world.” The team has already secured sustained funding through multiple sources, including the prestigious $3M Mellon grant and the exceptional Nau gift of $27.5M. They have recruited to the University and engaged dozens of premier faculty, students, subject matter experts, and the general public through Labs, courses, symposia, workshops, educational resources, and the first Democracy Summit was held in May of 2019 at the Presidential Ideas Festival. The return on investment for this SIF award is already substantial, and the project was prescient in terms of its relevance to current national circumstances.