In a June 15, 2017, column, Washington Post op-ed writer Michael Gerson tried to capture meaning in the aftermath of a gunman’s shooting that critically injured U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). He and other Republican leaders were in a practice field preparing for a congressional charity baseball game against their fellow House Democrats in the coming days. As Gerson writes, “Extreme partisanship may not be the direct cause of violence. But political violence acts like lightning, illuminating and freezing the whole political landscape for a moment. And what we see is a ready recourse to violence—punches at rallies, assaults, death threats, violent protests and intimidation. The system seems unbalanced—easily veering off course with every provocation.”
No one can credibly deny the rise in harsh rhetoric that has seeped into the national political sphere. This erosion of respectful discourse has been decried by countless pundits, columnists, academics, and civic leaders who mourn the state of a nation that seems more divided and polarized than ever. Differences of opinion aren’t to blame for heightened animosity. Any democracy should be able to withstand disagreement—and, in fact, should grow stronger as more people share their stories and add their ideas to the conversation.
Yet, as Gerson hints, it is the manner in which we have come to engage one another that is most dangerous. “Our discourse is being materially damaged by the endless search for Twitter leverage,” writes Gerson. He suggests that “hashtag animus” has turned “anger into an industry—using it to run up the number of listeners, viewers and hits.” One clear outcome: the de facto dehumanization of others with whom we disagree.
The only solution, argues Gerson, is to get off the “carousel of hate” that loops in endless circles. As he concludes: “The success of our politics, the quality of our culture, and the order of our society are very much at stake.”
Indeed, the longstanding role for higher education to help instill in students a sense of respect for others and the value of maintaining an open mind is perhaps more crucial today than at any time previous. Yet, institution leaders must find new ways to make these ideals resonate with a generation of students coming of age within a dramatically different cultural, social, and political context.
How best can colleges and universities teach students to debate controversial issues in ways that value dissenting opinion? Could the process for engagement be as important as what we discuss? How can we use dialogue to reinvigorate democratic values? In what ways must institutions reach beyond their campus populations to tap the experiences and perspectives of others within their communities as a means to model civility and respect?
These are some of the questions with which higher education leaders must grapple as they build a context for growing the capacity of students to assume their civic responsibilities. Following are the stories of what several institutions are finding helpful to encourage a healthy democracy in practice and through dialogue. Read also “Teaching Students to Care.”
“If you can’t listen to people, you can’t learn from them,” says Jay Theis, a political science professor at Lone Star College (LSC)-Kingwood. “No doubt we are reaping the results of an adversarial form of politics that, as a nation, we have allowed to form,” he adds. “You line up on your side, and I line up on mine, and there are seemingly no limits to what you or I have to do or can do to win, because the goal is to win.”
First, find common ground. The reality is that the left and the right in this country are concerned about the same things, argues Theis. “As citizens, we need to focus on understanding one another and finding common ground so that we can make decisions about the big challenges we face.” Theis admits that is always easier said than done, especially when the problems we face aren’t easily resolved. “These are what many theorists and scholars refer to as wicked problems. They are complex, they strike at our core values, and implementing solutions requires sacrifices and trade-offs from all sides.”
Consider the Flint, Mich., water crisis, suggests Theis. Everyone might agree that you need to replace the pipes before the lead problems will go away. Yet, in addition to agreeing on who is to blame, the much harder part is determining how to replace the pipes, who will pay for it, and what you must do to cope in the meantime.
Texas likewise has a water problem. “In many respects, the state is running out of water. In addition to drinking it, our aquifers are being drained for large-scale industrial agriculture, for fracking, and for residential use. There are towns in west Texas that are uninhabitable because there is no viable water supply. This is a wicked problem,” says Theis. “As Texans, we have to determine what we value, what trade-offs we’ll accept, and what sacrifices we all are willing to make to ensure a sustainable water supply.”
Care about community concerns. In broad terms, citizenship should mean seeing yourself as member of a community with a vested interest in what happens in that community, says Theis. That is the primary focus of the work he does as director of LSC-Kingwood’s Center for Civic Engagement. (Theis also serves as the current board chair of The Democracy Commitment, a nonpartisan national organization dedicated to advancing civic engagement and democracy in America’s community colleges.)
While the center oversees volunteer and service learning efforts, as well as political engagement activities such as candidate forums and debate clubs, most effort and energy is focused on “deliberative practice”—getting others to think about and talk about their roles as problem solvers in their communities, notes Theis.
As one example, students who work with the center serve as mentors to area high school and elementary school students involved in their local public achievement programs. “We get young people teamed up to identify and research problems in their communities. It might be addressing how awful the school lunches are, the lack of a recycling program in their neighborhood, or the fact that the community pool has to remain closed all summer due to budget restraints,” explains Theis. “We get kids to talk to stakeholders, gather information, and develop a plan to address the problem.”
Can We Talk?
Among Lone Star campus activities, the center holds a series of what it calls “deliberative dialogues” throughout the year for students and community members. These are hosted forums on topics such as bullying, a living wage, and immigration.
It so happened that in 2015, the biggest issue in Texas was concealed carry on campus, notes Theis. “Our college’s leadership wanted to hold public forums on the issue. I thought this would be a great opportunity to test our dialogue concept by holding a public forum about guns on campus, framed as a deliberation.”
To facilitate what was likely to be an impassioned discussion, the center organized the forum to have 30 students moderating tabletop discussions and created an issue book, framing the conversation from three perspectives instead of two to keep the discussion from becoming a purely left-right debate, explains Theis.
“As we were setting up, members from the group Open Carry Texas showed up with literature and stickers in hand,” says Theis. “They wanted to know if they would get the chance to speak, assuming that the event would essentially be centered on having leaders share why guns on campus are a bad idea. We assured them that everyone would have an opportunity to talk,” says Theis.
In total, more than 300 people showed up. Each table of 12 to 15 participants worked through the issue guide discussing the pros and cons of having guns on campus, not having guns on campus, or letting individual campuses decide. What could have been a contentious event turned into a substantive conversation that comingled university leaders, students, and community members, including staunch gun rights advocates, says Theis. At the end of the discussion, tables reported out which action they thought the state’s legislature should take. Groups on every table shared that they all were concerned about campus safety.
“This was huge,” says Theis. “While most of us may have left that forum with our same opinions about the best solution, we could at least respect the views of the other participants without questioning their motives, knowing that we all shared a common concern.”
The CU Dialogues Program at the University of Colorado Boulder began as a teaching initiative in 2006 through university grant funding for developing civic engagement service learning activities. An inaugural classroom dialogue was held in a residence hall on the topic of immigration.
Specifically, the conversation invited students and long-term immigrant residents to share their perspectives. Members of the residence hall custodial staff, many of whom at the time were first-generation immigrants, were offered work-release time to attend, says professor Karen Ramirez, director of CU Dialogues and assistant director of the university’s Miramontes Arts and Sciences Program. Afterward, students commented that they had never before thought so deeply about immigration issues, and custodial staff expressed appreciation for being included and being asked to share their personal stories, says Ramirez.
Similar occasional dialogues continued in classrooms and residence halls until 2010 when Ramirez and her colleagues sought additional funding to hire a part-time staff member to expand the breadth of classroom dialogue topics. As of 2014, the program found a permanent home and permanent funding under CU Engage, the Center for Community-Based Learning and Research within CU Boulder’s School of Education.
Classroom dialogues continue to provide an effective way for faculty to address contentious or complex issues within classroom settings across the curriculum, says Ramirez. “Many times we’ve had faculty share with us that classroom participation increased noticeably following these dialogues.” A newer category, outreach dialogues, allows student groups, academic departments, and administrative units to grapple with a topic of concern or interest to that group.
More recently Ramirez helped design and pilot the program’s “Dialogue Across Difference” course, first offered in spring 2016. While it launched as an elective, the three-credit course now also fulfills a requirement for the university’s bachelor’s degree in Leadership and Community Engagement as well as a Leadership Studies minor. As part of the course, students are trained to facilitate dialogues.
Designing the course brought to light for Ramirez the importance of not only allowing, but also encouraging, disagreement. “We often think productive dialogue is measured by our ability to reach consensus, but we really need to first understand where our disagreements stem from,” says Ramirez. The course guidelines now encourage disagreement, though from a spirit of curiosity rather than hostility.
Much of the focus of academic learning is on training students to speak up, to share and defend their opinions, to challenge others, and to become experts in their field, says Ramirez. “We also need to teach the importance of listening and of trying to understand others, and asking honest and curious questions to learn something we don’t already know.”
Prep and Follow-Up
Preparation is also critical to the success of any dialogue, suggests Ramirez. She and her colleagues spent time this past summer creating an instructional video to use as an introduction to classroom dialogues. “We also encourage faculty to provide materials in advance to help students prepare, since we find dialogues are more successful when students have some upfront understanding about the purpose of the dialogue.”
Likewise, Ramirez suggests that faculty follow up from the dialogue in some fashion, either with a related assignment or another classroom dialogue so that it doesn’t feel like an isolated incident, but rather, a new approach for interaction.
While the CU Dialogues Program has numerous repeat customers, each semester a handful of new requests pop up, says Ramirez. Currently the program conducts about 40 dialogues per semester. Nearly two-thirds of those are classroom dialogues. “That may shift a bit in favor of our outreach dialogues as we begin working more intentionally with administration in fulfillment of the university’s strategic initiative for inclusive excellence,” says Ramirez.
The program will likely garner additional classroom dialogue requests as well, following an invitation for the program to present to CU’s Faculty Teaching Excellence Program in the spring 2018 semester. “While I have often said in the past that we didn’t intend to start a formal program, I now think we very much meant to start a program because of our continuous push to keep the dialogues concept alive—perhaps because it felt like something had been missing.”
Talk Is Cheap, If No One Listens
Ramirez is also interested in finding ways to deploy the CU Dialogues Program as an alternative for groups that may want to move beyond debate or protest. “One of our long-term goals is to introduce dialogue as a tool and a process to advance communication across strong differences of opinion on particular issues,” says Ramirez.
Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, program leaders intended to host an intergroup dialogue, but soon discovered that there wasn’t sufficient interest in hearing from others who thought differently about the outcome. “If people aren’t in a space where they are willing to come together to listen, you can’t successfully take the conversation to that next level.”
In the 10 years since its launch, the CU Dialogues Program has slowly gained hold and evolved, but it’s really only been within the past two years that Ramirez has seen a marked increase in interest for learning how to engage one another in this manner. “Dialogue isn’t a panacea, but it is an essential component of solving any problem,” says Ramirez. She believes dialogue can likewise reinvigorate democratic ideals.
“As a democratic society, we are always negotiating across differences of opinions and different value systems. If we don’t take the initiative to negotiate, and we simply say, ‘I’m not going to engage with the other side,’ then we lose our ability to work toward anything we hold in common,” argues Ramirez. “Our hope is as we model this to students—the process of dialogue and the importance of listening across our differences—we will equip students to value the stories of others and to make listening part of their approach wherever they go and whatever they do.”
Make a Plan for Action
“If students leave our campuses without a felt capacity to engage with people with whom they disagree, higher education is failing, and we are in a serious dilemma as a country,” warns Andrew Seligsohn, president of Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education.
In fact, what compelled the organization in the mid–1980s was a shared concern among some higher education leaders about the future of American democracy. At that time, students seemed largely disengaged from their sense of civic duty. Collectively, these leaders committed to work together to do more to prepare students to solve the challenges within their communities, explains Seligsohn.
In 2015, Campus Compact members convened to consider where the work of the organization stood 30 years after its founding. “We identified two primary developments,” says Seligsohn.
- The first was that the higher education sector had made enormous progress in building infrastructure for community engagement, with targeted programs for service learning, stronger K–12 partnerships, and progress on critical issues such as health and food security.
- Along the way, numerous national and regional organizations had formed around specific civic engagement initiatives, and professional and academic journals were launched to educate and advance research in this field, notes Seligsohn. “All this indicated an increasing maturity around civic engagement endeavors in academics and in practice.”
It’s also the case that during the past three decades new challenges have emerged, admits Seligsohn. “An explosion of social and economic inequality in the United States and deep political polarization have made it that much harder for institutions to make progress in their role of strengthening democracy.”
Seligsohn says the question before leaders is: How do we reclaim higher education’s historic role as opportunity creators for those marginalized and excluded, and as sustainers of democracy in light of these fundamental challenges?
From that 30-year marker, Campus Compact’s leadership invited college and university presidents and chancellors to commit to developing civic action plans for their campuses. To date, 460 signatories have made that promise, and 62 institutions have completed their plans.
In part, the catalyst for these action plans was based on research suggesting that in addition to what happens in the curriculum, students’ civic identity is affected by the way institutions conduct themselves, says Seligsohn. “We have encouraged institutions to think in an integrated way about their overall civic profile. This isn’t about teaching and research only, but also about purchasing policies, admissions and financial aid procedures, business and real estate transactions, and how freely our campuses open their doors to communities that have not enjoyed opportunities for full participation.”
Another action the organization has taken in response to current-day challenges of inequality and polarization included a call for proposals for $5,000 minigrants to launch experimental projects in civic engagement, says Seligsohn. “Our Fund for Positive Engagement is focused on getting institutions to identify what they think might help combat a particular challenge faced by their students or local communities.” Campus Compact received nearly 300 applications by its July 2017 deadline and awarded grants to 40 institutions by September 2017.
“While the level of funding is small, we saw this as a way to provide an incentive for institutions to put an idea in motion they wanted to test, based on specific challenges that had emerged for their campuses,” explains Seligsohn. Many of the proposed projects focused on enhancing dialogue or storytelling, or for creating activities to bring people together across differences in political viewpoints, race and ethnicity, or campus and community dimensions. Some proposals were in response to hate-related incidents, physical violence, or a deep sense of students having given up on trying to communicate and a desire to reverse those dynamics, notes Seligsohn.
“None of these ideas on their own are going to change the world, but many of them may help percolate ideas for additional work or future projects,” says Seligsohn. His hope is that by the time Campus Compact’s national conference is held in March 2018, many of the grant recipients might be ready to share what they have learned as a means to spur ideas for what others can do.
Theis views the current national political landscape as providing a teachable moment in two regards. First: As communities go, so goes the nation. “Ultimately, all lasting change bubbles up from the bottom. We can’t expect to change Washington until we change the way our local communities deal with problems. And the way to fix a broken system is to start doing something to fix it,” says Theis. “I can’t singlehandedly change something. Neither can you. But we can each change our little piece of it, and if everyone does this, soon the system will change and the country will change.”
And that leads to a second truth worth remembering, says Theis: It’s never one person who gets the job done. “We most often are taught a view of history by looking at its leaders. Even in celebrating the inspirational leadership of individuals like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., we can’t forget the tens of thousands in small towns across the South who were creating citizen education schools, helping people register to vote, and all the other work entailed in advancing civil rights.”
We also can’t forget that after the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, it took more than 70 years to secure the right for women to vote, reminds Theis. “While we live in an age of instant gratification, that’s not how democracy works or how it ever has. Democracy happens on the backs of a lot of hard-working ordinary people who want to see change.” When communities begin thinking differently about how to fix problems and are deliberative in their decision making—and when individuals begin engaging one another with honesty and respect, seeking common understanding—change will occur, says Theis.
As stewards of place within their communities, higher education institutions are well positioned to facilitate the kind of dialogue and interaction that leads to a stronger democracy more broadly, argues Theis. “We not only have a vested interest, but a responsibility to help our communities and campuses become more engaged in what matters to us all.”
KARLA HIGNITE, New York City, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.