At a time when our political climate seems more polarized than ever, Meagan Rosenthal keeps a hopeful outlook on the future of democracy.
“The world is kind of at our fingertips, so to speak, how we curate what we have access to, or what makes it to our attention now. It makes it easier to feel like we are more divided and more separated than we actually are,” she said.
Rosenthal is an Associate Professor of Pharmacy Administration at Ole Miss, an avid researcher, and served as Faculty Senate Chair.
Additionally, she serves as the Interim Director of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing and is Co-Director of the UM Community First Research Center for Wellbeing & Creative Achievement.
Rosenthal grew up in Alberta, Canada, in the farming country of Edmonton. From her bachelor’s degree to her Ph.D., Rosenthal completed her formal education at the University of Alberta. She moved to the United States in 2014 with her husband, Todd, and her dog, Beef.
She has driven from Canada to the South a handful of times, roughly five days each way.
“I have gotten to see a good chunk of the middle part of the United States, which was really cool. That would never be something that you would normally do,” said Rosenthal.
She also came to observe things in the American political climate others didn’t.
“When I first came, it seemed the division or the start of the dividing was just starting to happen, and it seemed much more divided and starkly divided,” she said.
The longer she lived in the South, the more she started to realize the divisions may have always existed.
As a scientist with knowledge of theories of human behavior, Rosenthal sees society’s political behavior through many lenses.
“We get into echo chambers, and we only see stuff that we like, or that makes sense to us. We don’t have access as broadly to information as we otherwise would because we reinforce things we already think about.”
It makes the political climate seem worse than it actually is, she said. “I don’t know if that is actually true, but that is just my hypothesis.”
Her role at the university has shaped many of Rosenthal’s beliefs. “Institutes of higher learning are where you are meant to question things and dig into topics in a deeper, more nuanced, and complicated way.”
“Being here, and using the scientific method to do the research that we do and working through those steps and processes has helped me to be able to see both sides of the equation in a different kind of way than I would have otherwise been able to do,” she said. “Our jobs here are to not take things for granted and to question our beliefs alongside the beliefs of the people we interact with.”
Rosenthal’s experience in community-engaged research also contributes to her perspective on political cooperation.
“If our goal at the end of the day is to improve outcomes for a specific population, or get more people vaccinated, or whatever the case may be, that is our end goal. How we get there doesn’t matter, and if it doesn’t matter, then you can have conversations with people and bend in certain ways to get to that end goal.”
One of the biggest threats to democracy is the closing down of conversations among the citizenry. Rigid thinking is one of the biggest roadblocks, for example, when it comes to getting people vaccinated against COVID-19.
“Then suddenly the end goal of getting people vaccinated isn’t really the end goal anymore. Instead, proving that you are right becomes the end goal. That, to me, is a dangerous path to take,” she warned.
As a professor in the School of Pharmacy, Rosenthal knows much about vaccinations. She does not blame the current political climate for the controversy surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, instead pointing to scientific theory for deeper insights, illuminations.
“Anytime we introduce something new, there will be people who adopt it quickly and easily,” she explained. According to diffusion of innovations theory, there are innovators, early adopters, late adopters, and finally, the laggers, she explained.
She said, “We were always going to run into the problem where some people were going to get the vaccine quickly, and others were not. This is just because people perceive risk differently and understand the world in different ways.”
Being vocal about your beliefs, and listening to those of others is important. “I don’t ever feel the need to hide my beliefs. I do think, though, there are times when my beliefs are not relevant to the problem at hand or that being rigid in my beliefs in certain circumstances is not going to help me do my job.”
“In the faculty senate, for example, my responsibilities were to the faculty. If my beliefs didn’t align with what the faculty needed, where we were going to go, or what needed to happen to make sure all the faculty on campus were kept safe and allowed to continue to do their work, then that was irrelevant,” she said.
To Rosenthal, democracy means both the opportunity for all voices to be at the table and the responsibility for everyone to engage.
“It doesn’t work if we’re not all willing to put the work in to make it work, so it’s almost double-edged. I think everybody needs to be there, but we also have a responsibility as individuals to contribute in a meaningful way to that process.”
And, she sees the university as an example of how the process should work.
“We should be the example of how it functions,” Rosenthal said of the university. “We should be adhering to the rules or the best practices and showing that to the outside community. The work of the institution is founded on these principles, on questioning and using data to make decisions and having all voices at the table to have rigorous conversations about things.”
This path is not going to be easy or comfortable, or a straight line, she concedes.
“But if we are not showing that and modeling that to the outside world, then I guess, we end up in a situation like we are in right now, where the loudest voices win and we don’t get the opportunity to hear from all the different stakeholders in a conversation or a situation. I think we all lose when that happens.”
Chloe Rizk of Gulfport, Mississippi is a senior in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College majoring in Public Policy. She will be attending Georgetown Law School after graduation.