the mill
institute

Less certain, more curious.

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Why Our Work Matters

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The Mill Institute is leading a movement of educators across North America that have the skills and the support to open their classrooms to diverse viewpoints and open inquiry.

American educators are facing a social and political climate that stifles open classroom conversations. Students and teachers have become increasingly reluctant to discuss controversial issues or take intellectual risks for fear of harsh social or professional penalties. This is not a “Right” or a “Left” problem, but an education problem. And the result is a failure to teach students how to engage across ideological and political differences. This is a threat to our democracy and the civic institutions that enable it to thrive.

The Mill Institute fills a gap in the education landscape left by organizations that teach critical thinking skills but shy away from tough political topics, and those that address controversial topics in ideological ways. We help teachers dig into topics that others may be afraid to touch, and we do so without a political agenda.

What we do

Education means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light only by which men can be free.

Frederick Douglass
Blessings of Liberty and Education • 1894

who we are

Our mission

It has become increasingly difficult to communicate across ideological divides. Too many people affirm their beliefs by surrounding themselves with media, social groups, and institutions that shield them from contrasting perspectives. Dismissing opposing ideas (and the people who hold them) as wrong-headed or ill-intentioned has become common.

The harsh judgments that go along with this dismissal underpin many other problems, including fights over free speech, disinvitations, and self-censorship.

‍One survey indicates that 63% of college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevents people from saying things that they believe. The problem isn’t confined to college campuses. According to the New York Times, more than 60% of 18-34 year olds in America have held back opinions in the past year for fear of retaliation.
We need a new model for engaging with complex issues.

‍Building stronger and more compassionate communities requires us to understand that the person who disagrees might be just as reasonable as we are. It also requires us to accept the possibility that our own deeply held beliefs may not always be right or, perhaps, they may not be right in the way we think they are. Ultimately, the transformation we need in order to change how we communicate on tough issues requires us to recognize that our values, beliefs, and assumptions do not belong on a pedestal, out of reach. They belong on the table in front of us where they can be examined and questioned.


In order to build better solutions to our global challenges, we need a diversity of thought, ideas, and approaches. We need to be able to talk with one another openly. And we need people who can think in ways that are curious, constructive, surprising, and brave.


The Mill Institute at UATX advances this kind of thinking.

Our Affiliation With UATX

In recent years, Ilana Redstone, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois, became increasingly concerned about the state of discourse when it comes to complex and controversial social issues.

After co-authoring Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education (2020), she dove deeper into the problem and began planning a center to challenge the thinking behind the most heated topics we face.

Shortly after, she met Christina LaRose and Ellie Avishai, two educators with a shared philosophy and commitment to helping students develop the capacity to engage with multiple points of view. In 2021, the team co-founded the educational nonprofit the Mill Center. It is named after John Stuart Mill, specifically because of his work On Liberty (1859), where he offers a compelling plea for the value of intellectual humility and understanding opponents’ viewpoints. The Mill Center collaborated on projects in both K-12 and higher education—with Heterodox Academy, Free Black Thought, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, and the Mercatus Center’s program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange.

In 2022, Ilana Redstone became a Faculty Fellow at UATX, and agreed with the leadership team that the center’s mission and vision strongly aligned with UATX’s principles. The UATX and Mill Center began discussions to incorporate the center—renamed the Mill Institute—into UATX to continue the institute’s educational programs and to help UATX uphold its principles. The Mill Institute at UATX officially launched in September 2022.

Our Process

The Mill Institute’s process is guided by an open-inquiry mindset, community ground rules, skills, and behaviors.

Open-Inquiry Mindset

Our mindset determines how we think about our role and our goal in any conversation. An open-inquiry mindset is comprised of four core acknowledgements:

(1) I can always learn more about myself, others, and the world around me.

(2) I can dig into the details of messy information. The most interesting problems usually don’t have obvious correct answers.

(3) I can let go of certainty – my current ideas and beliefs do not define me.

(4) I’m curious about people who see things differently than I do.

Community Ground Rules

Clearly-articulated, mutually-agreed upon principles are necessary to set the expectations for conversation. Ground rules are vital for creating a shared understanding of what the group is attempting to accomplish and how it will get there. Ground rules also take the pressure off of individuals to decode any unspoken norms (e.g., “Don’t be the first person to speak.”) that might be in play at any moment.

Examples of potential community ground rules:

(1) Seek out multiple, conflicting perspectives. We are seeking a volume of ideas, not a consensus.

(2) No ideas are off the table, ignored, or untouchable. No idea is exempt from criticism or questioning.

(3) Treat others as individuals, not as representatives of any group.

(4) Everyone gets a do-over. Let people rephrase statements or questions if they don’t feel they got it right the first time.

Skills and Behaviors

The Mill Institute toolbox focuses on five categories of skills:

(1) The capacity to ask thoughtful questions

(2) Interpreting data and recognizing its limits

(3) Reflecting on our thinking

(4) Exploring the thinking of others

(5) Generating new ideas

Each of these categories houses a set of sub-skills that include mapping arguments, assessing the validity of statistics, media literacy, active and empathetic listening, self-reflection, and more.

How we do it

Create resources

We create resources that support the open and curious exploration of important but contentious topics

Run Programs

We run programs that model productive dialogue and identify the core differences on why people disagree

Conduct Research

We conduct research that furthers the public understanding of what educators and students need to create viewpoint diversity in the classroom

Advise UATX

We work with UATX administrators, faculty, staff, and students to help the institution uphold its principles and maintain a campus culture of open inquiry and civil discourse

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our
Programs

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High School Teacher Fellowship

OCTOBER 2024–March 2025
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Applications for the Mill Institute’s 2024-2025 Teacher Fellowship are now open!
Each year, we bring together high school teachers from across the U.S. and Canada who are passionate about cultivating viewpoint diversity and open inquiry in the classroom.

Accepted fellows have the opportunity to:

  • Join an active community of educators committed to promoting viewpoint diversity.
  • Travel to Austin for an in-person collaboration weekend.
  • Receive training on the Mill Institute's Framework.
  • Create and workshop new classroom resources.
  • Receive a $1,000 stipend for their efforts.

Learn more and apply at the registration link below. Applications close June 15th.

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Weekend Professional Development Workshops for Teachers

OCTOBER 2023–FEBRUARY 2024
The Mill Institute will be taking our one-day professional development workshops on the road in Spring 2024! These workshops are focused on applying theory to practice. Participating high school educators will:
  1. Receive an introduction to the Mill Institute's Framework for Challenging Settled Thinking
  2. Develop a shared vision and ground rules for open inquiry and challenging settled thinking in the classroom
  3. Engage in exercises around how to tackle difficult conversations in the classroom



If you are interested in participating in or hosting one of these workshops, please let us know by filling in the type form below.

OUR TEAM

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Ilana Redstone

Co-director

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Elisheva Avishai

Co-director

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Lauren Kish

Program Manager

support our work

Make a contribution

The Mill Institute is funded separately from the University of Austin. Help us expand our capacity, with an aim to serve 10,000 classrooms across the country by 2027.

Please note that the following link leads to the general UATX donation page. If you would like to make a gift towards the Mill Institute, please be sure to let us know in the notes section of your donation.

funding opportunities

Teacher Fellowship Program

Expanding our flagship Teacher Fellowship Program by tripling the number of our existing teacher communities ($350,000)

Democracy Project

Launching our Democracy Project to help students and teachers unpack key voting issues during the 2024 election and beyond ($200,000)

Viewpoint Diversity Challenge

Scaling our Viewpoint Diversity Challenge by 10x to reach 1,000 classrooms (and 30,000 students) by 2025 ($500,000)

Open Access Resources

Building an open-access virtual resource library for teachers ($150,000)

We need your support to transform the experiences of students and teachers across America, and to help thousands of classrooms be spaces where open and honest conversations can happen.

Apply now