In his speech after the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson, President Obama challenged the country to engage in political debate worthy of those we lost.

Sitting in the audience at McKale Center, Fred DuVal accepted the challenge.

On Monday, he and a team of local leaders announced the beginning of the privately funded National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona.

The new, nonpartisan think tank has attracted as honorary chairs former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, and two honorary co-chairs: former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

The institute could help the nation by being referee of sorts in the game of political speech, said DuVal, a Tucsonan who has held many government roles and is currently vice chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents.

"Can we agree, regardless of your ideology, on a set of rhetorical parameters as to what's out of bounds?" he asked.

Then, the institute could blow the whistle on comments that go too far, he said.

He compared it to the way initiatives changed personal accountability on littering or driving while drunk.

"In a political world that currently rewards excess and vitriol, perhaps we with this entity can reward responsibility and respect," DuVal said in the announcement Monday.

How the idea was born

The morning after Obama's speech, DuVal shared his idea with U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' staff, who shared an e-mail she had written a few days before the shooting.

In the e-mail, Giffords told her friend Trey Grayson, head of Harvard's Institute of Politics, about the divisive campaign season. And she asked him, "Isn't there a way we can find something better? More civil discourse where we can question ideas without questioning motives? Where people can disagree without being disagreeable?" DuVal read. "She asked him, 'Isn't this something your institute could take on?' "

DuVal said he was even more motivated to make Giffords' idea happen in Tucson.

He and Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, got Bush, Clinton and many other leaders on board with the idea for a center.

The institute is designed to be privately funded, although researchers may seek federal grants.

Tucson businessman Fletcher McCusker gave a generous multi-year donation to help found the think tank, including downtown office space at 64 E. Broadway, said UA provost Meredith Hay. She did not disclose the amount of the gift.

McCusker said, "it's a chance for something good to come out of the tragedy of Jan. 8," and also a chance to locate a new think tank in downtown Tucson.

What the institute will do

The work of the institute is just beginning.

DuVal said about $1 million has been raised and more is needed.

The institute's first event will be a forum to help set the group's agenda.

The faculty might research "the organization of outrage, for example, said director Brint Milward.

Around 50 expert faculty members from disciplines including political science, law, education, psychology, journalism and history will be brought together. Among them:

• Kate Kenski, who studies the communication factors that influence people's political decisions.

• Sociologist Robin Stryker, who does research on hot-topic debates and how they may heighten divisiveness and spread misinformation.

• Kevin Coe, author of "The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America."

Milward said he hopes community groups will be involved too, although some want to hear more about the center before signing on.

Trent Humphries, organizer of the Tucson Tea Party, said he is skeptical that the new center will be useful and said he would like to see the plans.

"I just don't understand the glaring need for this," he said.

He said enforcing speech codes could hurt freedom of speech and that society can decide the boundaries of civility.

"I just don't think we need a department, or government, or university saying, 'These are the topics you can talk about; these topics are off limits,' " Humphries said. "I just don't see how that helps. Usually civility is self-policing. If people get too nasty, people don't want to be a part of it."

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at or 807-8012.