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

Total Funding: $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: Completed


The 2021/22 academic year was a highly productive one for the Democracy Initiative (“the Initiative”) on all fronts – research, teaching, and public engagement.  Even amid continuing disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Initiative was fully staffed and operated smoothly both remotely and more recently through in-person engagement at the Bond House and beyond.

The John L. Nau III Core Lab on the History and Principles of Democracy (the Nau Core Lab) served as the nucleus of the rotating Democracy Labs and special projects.  Additionally, the Nau Core Lab has developed a rhythm to sunsetting older Labs and launching new Labs on a more sustainable level.  Beginning in January 2023 there will be three rotating labs at any one time, with one Lab sunsetting and one Lab on-boarding each year.

Dynamic, new Memory Project leadership put the work of inclusive democracy and memory on an extremely productive trajectory.  The Equity Center has grown to serve as the University’s “front porch” to the Charlottesville community and is investing in integrating UVA expertise in education into local civic life.  The new StoryCorps/One Small Step project kicked-off in fall 2021 to deepen the Initiative’s work that encourages dialogue across differences to fight increasing political polarization.  The Initiative continues to involve UVA undergraduate and graduate students in all aspects of its work; in that regard, the Initiative’s Student Advisory Council has taken on a critical advising and engagement role.  

Finally, the Initiative has a new and exciting relationship with the Karsh Institute of Democracy.  While remaining academically integrated with the College, the Initiative will be functionally integrated into the Karsh Institute.