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 Democracy Initiative (The Initiative) continues on its trajectory to become an academic leader in studying, sustaining, enriching and realizing democracy’s promise via our non-partisan and multi-disciplinary framework. The 2020/21 academic year (FY21) has been a year of exceptional growth in the areas of operations, research, teaching/student engagement, and public engagement/impact. 

Four fully operational rotating Democracy Labs (Religion, Race & Democracy Lab; Corruption Lab on Ethics Accountability and the Rule of Law; Deliberative Media Lab; and Statecraft Lab) have navigated COVID-related obstacles to generate results in teaching, research and engagement.  

The two unique special projects supported by the Initiative (The Center for the Redress of Inequity Through Community Engaged Scholarship  -- or the “Equity Center” -- and The Memory Project) have had outsized impact in Charlottesville, Albemarle County and the state of Virginia as the United States wrestles with issues that challenge democratic aspirations, including race, ethnicity, and COVID’s outsized impact on underserved communities.

In the coming year, we have two overarching goals:  (1) continued successful collaboration with the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (The College) to hire democracy-related faculty who will add content, expertise and gravitas to the Initiative, and (2) improving and expanding forms of support for research, teaching and impact. Democracy Initiative Academic Co-director and Nau Core Lab Director Laurent Dubois, who joined the Initiative in January, is developing a series of competitive opportunities to engage a broader group of faculty by designing engagements which require a lower barrier to entry than the three-year rotating Democracy Labs.  These new engagements will include “democracy working groups,” as well as book writing fellowships for College faculty. 

The Initiative will work to seamlessly integrate the new colleagues and to add value to the newly announced Institute of Democracy, which will be run by Initiative Co-director Melody Barnes.