September 19, 2017

Fostering Dialogue Across Ideological Silos: Students in a Post-Election America

As we begin a new academic year, we welcome new student through our doors to join our communities.

Maren Greathouse, Director of the Tyler Clementi Center

These students will bring with them ideas, energy and excitement, ready to learn new things and grow intellectually. Simultaneously, these students will also bring with them a diverse cross-section of lived experiences, divergent values and ideologies/perspectives about the world around them. As faculty, staff and administrators, we have the opportunity to impress upon these students the value of this a diverse learning environment: the complexity it brings to the conversation, the impact it has on intellectual and psycho-social development, and the manner in which it expands perspective. How do we leverage these differences to foster cohesive communities and holistic student development? After all, simply assembling a diverse student body is not the goal, but the site of this work. A heterogeneous community does not guarantee meaningful cross-cultural engagement. To truly build cohesive and engaged campus communities, we must engage students across their divergent points-of-entry, educate them on the difference between dialogue and debate, and encourage them to embrace the unfamiliar, the unsettling, the incongruous. When we do not, we foster divisiveness, aggression, and hostility.

The tensions between inclusion and the free exchange of ideas have always been a key challenge within contemporary higher education.  How do we encourage a student’s right to free speech, when that speech may create a hostile learning environment for another.  How do we respond to the aggregate impact of microaggressions?   What criteria doe we use in determining grounds for bias incident reporting?  Higher education is experiencing a divide in this areas.  While one university issues an email urging students to reconsider culturally offensive and appropriative practices this Halloween, another upholds the protection of free speech after a blatant incident of bias.  It is clear that while universities have the common goal of higher learning, we are deeply divided in how we define and go about it. So, where do we go from here? The perspectives of every student- whether these represent ideas, opinions or attitudes- inform the way they relate to others and the contributions they make to the overall campus climate.

As university professionals, we have a vested interest in fostering perspectives that reflect an ethic of care for others and contribute to an overall campus climate where students are respected by their peers. If a student organization requests university funding to bring a white supremacist to campus, as many have over the past year, does that pursuit reflect an ethic of care towards others? Do the free exchange of ideas supersede civility? What message does that send to students of color and how does it influence their perceptions of the campus climate?

Academic freedom does not grant carte blanche to those promoting ideas intended to defame, harass or intimidate. Furthermore, when university administrators grant these requests in the spirit of free speech (or in fear of legal entanglements), we implicitly validate the merit of these ideologies and their perpetuation in higher education. There is nothing of academic value in this rhetoric. Our students do not need to be verbally humiliated to understand ideologies that are different from their own; and there are far more ethically responsible ways to introduce students to ideas they find unsettling. Instead, we must challenge our students to think critically about the merit of their ideas and the impact they have on others. This is not censorship. This is not the act of pushing a “liberal agenda” within higher education. Mutual regard for  the dignity and worth of others is a universal value. We must not be afraid to teach our students the practice of socially responsible citizenship. This is the premise upon which public higher education was built.

We have an ethical obligation to teach students the value of difference, the opportunities that come from conflict and the tools of transformative dialogue. When we embolden our students to challenge one another in the spirit of learning and mutual consideration, we can create spaces where respectful disagreement is possible and learning is powerful. Mutuality destabilizes defensiveness, staves off the urge to disengage or discredit, and fosters empathy and active listening. Mutuality facilitates engagement with the uncomfortable, whether those differences be political, social, moral or intellectual. We have the opportunity to set this tone from the moment our students set foot on campus.

The Tyler Clementi Center encourages all colleges and universities to adopt the #Day1 Campaign, an on-going project that promotes institutional commitment to diversity and inclusion. This campaign invites students to pledge formal commitment to creating an inclusive campus climate, engaging others with an ethic of care and challenging people and practices that harass, humiliate or perpetuate bias on campus. To download the #Day1 Kit for colleges/universities, go to Tyler Clementi Foundation Resources for Colleges and Universities.

While it is just one step, it creates a path towards the greater good.

The Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers University is a research institute studying bias, peer aggression and the impact of campus climate on stigmatized populations within higher education.