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As part of Vol Success Week 2021, students, faculty, staff, and community leaders attended a February 23 panel, “Navigating Civil Discourse,” with former Tennessee governors Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam. Vice Provost for Student Success Amber Williams moderated the discussion, and four first-year undergraduate students served as additional panelists.

When discussing civil discourse and the public’s trust in their leaders, Haslam recounted advice from his mentor, Senator Howard Baker, who said, “Always remember the other fellow might be right.” Bredesen added, “There’s plenty of room in this world for people to see life in different ways and to regard different things as being important. I think it’s important for anyone to respect that.”

Haslam discussed higher education as a tool to reduce the divisiveness that exists today, saying that historically one of its purposes has been to enable “open, honest discussions about questions, particularly with people who disagree with you. It’s about the chance to express your views and then listen to the other folks and then have a good, honest discussion.” Bredesen said, “You have to separate the message and the messenger. There are a lot of times that information you need to have comes from a place you dislike.”

Haslam’s advice to students working to find their identity and voice is to “make certain you are getting news from a variety of places” and “make sure have you some real friendships with people who disagree with you about key issues.” Bredesen told students, “You have a wonderful opportunity and, at a school like this, to make friendships that cut across very different people and backgrounds.”

To students who want to be leaders, Bredesen said, “You learn leading by leading, not by talking about it or anything else. Find some opportunities, whether small or large, to exercise leadership.” Haslam said, “The best leaders, the ones who I think end up being impactful, are the ones who don’t think the story is about them. And so go for it, but realize you are not the only actor in the play.”

Ruhiya Mithani, a junior in political science, said it was “empowering to hear an organic and vulnerable conversation between the governors. I took away from them that when a lot of things might be difficult around you, keep going.” Bryson Garrett, a junior majoring in journalism and electronic media, said, “I appreciated hearing governors from two different parties instilling the value of civil discourse in the next generation.”

In closing, Haslam said, “Here’s the one advice that I would have—and not just for the students but for all of us. Support people for public office who occasionally go against their own tribe. People who will make the hard decision.”

Bredesen said, “You’ve got a lot of good years ahead of you, and if you seize every one of those days to do some things that are important to you and important to those and those things you love, I think will you have a very successful life.”

Bredesen was the 48th governor of Tennessee, in office from 2003 to 2011. He served as mayor of Nashville from 1991 to 1999, and since 2011 he has been the chair of Silicon Ranch Corporation, a firm that develops and operates solar power stations. Haslam followed Bredesen as governor, serving from 2011 to 2019. Before being elected governor, he was the president of his family’s corporation, Pilot Flying J, for four years and served as mayor of Knoxville for seven years.

Student panelists were Jacqueline Capron-Allcott of Cookeville, Tennessee, an English and sociology major; Nicole Makaras of Cincinnati, Ohio, majoring in political science; Micah Owens of Cookeville, an industrial engineering major; and Christian Solberg of Clarksville, Tennessee, a biological sciences major.


Lacey Wood, (865-974-8386,