The Difficult Dialogues program at UT-Austin began in 2006 as part of the Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues Initiative. Robert M. O’Neil—the former president of the University of Virginia and Director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression—reported in the July- August 2006 issue of Academe Online that the Ford Foundation instituted the Difficult Dialogues Initiative in response to “reports of growing intolerance and efforts to curb academic freedom on U.S. campuses.”
In participating in this initiative UT-Austin was part of a diverse group of 27 institutions across the country that were selected by the Ford Foundation from a pool of nearly seven hundred applicants. Other large research universities participating in the initiative include Arizona State University, Emory University, the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, the University of Missouri, the University of North Carolina, and Yale University. UT-Austin was unique in offering Difficult Dialogues courses as part of the required undergraduate curriculum.
Under the first round of funding, from 2006-2008, the UT Difficult Dialogues program developed a series of four undergraduate seminars. In the second funding phase, 2008-2010, more courses were added. Beginning in Spring 2009, the DD program began offering a series of Public Dialogues focusing on controversial topics of interest to the University and wider Austin communities.
Most Difficult Dialogues courses are part of the First-Year Signature Course program, which offers interdisciplinary courses designed to introduce entering students to the intellectual and artistic riches of the university. Difficult Dialogues seminars are distinctive in their focus on teaching students the principles of academic freedom and the skills they need to participate in constructive dialogue about controversial and potentially divisive issues. In Spring 2010, Advanced Difficult Dialogues seminars, directed at upper division students, were added to the course portfolio.