5 insights for college leaders who want to improve civil discourse on campus

A primary theory of change behind the bridge-building movement is that getting to know someone and their story makes it nearly impossible to demonize them. This is often most effective using small group or one-on-one interactions.
Michelle Sobel
Michelle Sobelhttps://www.unifyamerica.org/college-bowl
Michelle Sobel is President of Unify America, a nonpartisan nonprofit that builds and facilitates intercollegiate programming to encourage civil dialogue on America’s college and university campuses.

Candidates are lining up for the 2024 presidential election, and as sparks begin to fly on the campaign trail, they’re bound to drive a new round of heated exchanges on our campuses, on our social media feeds and in our families.

How can higher education leaders support their students and encourage civil discourse during this contentious election season? Is it even possible?

Since 2021, my colleagues and I have hosted thousands of one-on-one guided remote video conversations between college students who try to work out solutions to the country’s most hot-button issues. They are total strangers from different schools with different political leanings or backgrounds. And from where I stand, I see glimmers of hope for meaningful dialogue.

At Unify America, we found that students are eager to interact in civil discussions across differences. Moreover, colleges and universities are the prime environments for creating a cultural norm of embracing viewpoint diversity, encouraging the ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective and helping students learn to accept challenges to their own ideas.

Here is what I’ve taken away from these conversations over the past two years and how campuses can continue to capitalize on their rich, dialogue-friendly environment.

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1) One-on-one conversations can help to humanize the “other”

Civic engagement through discussion is a life-sustaining feature of democracy. However, college leaders must prepare their campuses for opposing viewpoints to stay civil, encourage open dialogue and not boil over into shouting matches.

A primary theory of change behind the bridge-building movement is that getting to know someone and their story makes it nearly impossible to demonize them. This is often most effective using small group or one-on-one interactions.

During the Unify Challenge College Bowl, it is critical for our students to feel comfortable sharing their beliefs, and we believe our student-to-student, one-on-one approach provides just that. This isn’t public speaking—which is nerve-wracking for many—and doesn’t involve exposing students’ views to a group for criticism. It’s just sharing their story with one other person.

Instead of having large group discussions, consider how you can provide students with opportunities to talk to each other in a more personalized format.

2) Students need opportunities for conversations

Students are a lot braver than we think. My colleagues and I find that while they are initially nervous about their conversations, the nerves and uncertainty tend to melt away as the dialogue begins.

College students seem to crave the opportunity to have conversations about these issues. They want to talk, but they also really want to listen to what the other person has to say and learn from them.  Through social media, students are already exposed to many different viewpoints. Still, they often note that they don’t have the opportunity to converse with those differing views they digest through social media.

That’s where college campuses can come in.

3) Gen Z holds the key to better civil discourse and a healthier democracy

Gen Z is the youngest generation civically engaged, and the lessons they learn will have lasting effects on our society. America’s colleges and universities just so happen to have access to Gen Z, making our institutions vital centers for meaningful dialogue on our country’s future.

“Lean into Gen Z’s gravitational pull. Gen Z is the tipping point for action,” wrote the authors of Edelman’s 2022 Special Report: The New Cascade of Influence. “If you can activate them, you can shape behavior for all.”

Why are Gen Z members perfect candidates for participating in meaningful dialogue exercises? Because they value collaboration, are motivated to make positive change in our country, believe in their ability to make change and take a pragmatic approach to solving our most challenging issues. They are an active generation. Indeed, 70% of Gen Z are involved with a social or political cause with “unity as the new activism” and an emphasis on “we over me.” Gen Z wants to talk about issues that matter and collaborate with others to find practical solutions to our greatest challenges.

4) Self-censorship on campus is real, so civil discourse needs to start in a low-risk environment

According to Heterodox Academy’s annual Campus Expression Survey, 63% of students agreed that the climate on campus often prevents people from saying things they believe, despite 88% agreeing that colleges should encourage students and professors to interact respectfully with people whose beliefs differ from their own. This fear of negative social consequences from their peers perpetuates a cycle of self-censure.

When we remove perceived social risks, the conversations get better. Consider conversations with students on different campuses or allow students to assume different characters.

5) Put students in the driver’s seat

We also learned to tip the balance of conversational control in the students’ favor. When students decide how long to spend talking about an issue, who speaks when or how much time they spend together, the conversations are richer and deeper. This control of both direction and dimension eases nerves and builds confidence.

After thousands of student-to-student conversations, the data is clear. Purposeful, well-designed, one-to-one conversations between students from different backgrounds inspire more hope for the future of our democracy in a generation that will fuel its future.

So can colleges and universities build an environment that supports collaboration and constructive dialogue, especially during a presidential election cycle? I believe it is possible—one small but powerful conversation at a time.


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