This fall will see American colleges and universities re-open their doors to in-person learning. We have all missed the energy of a buzzing campus, yet our enthusiasm is tempered with questions: How smoothly will we readapt to the classroom? How has technology newly impacted learning? With Zoom pushing everyone further online for the past year and half, how will near-constant social media outrage and crisis-level reporting impact campus dialogue?
With classrooms reopening, campus leaders are in a unique position to promote meaningful dialogue and constructive disagreement as students process the emotional experiences and immense questions of the past year. Rather than a ‘return to normalcy,’ university and college leaders can encourage their campuses to embrace more productive conversations across lines of difference.
Campus leaders as conveners
Students, instructors, and staff are carrying back to campus their personal experiences of COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd and others, the January 6 events at the Capitol, and more. Campus leaders can use this opportunity to embrace the unique role of ‘reconvening’ students for on-campus discussions following lockdown. As they do so, their words and visibility can shape expectations and remind their communities of shared values. These approaches will matter. With emotions high, strategic messaging and encouragement can help ground on-campus dialogue in mutual respect.
As you think about reconvening your own community this fall, consider these five strategies for promoting meaningful dialogue and constructive disagreement.
- Encourage curiosity and intellectual charity. We have so much to learn from one another coming out of this year, but polarization remains a real challenge. We need to be intentional about assuming the best in others, genuinely seeking their perspectives, and lowering our raised hackles. Campus leaders can remind students and instructors that differing viewpoints enrich our own perspectives and arguments. Consider these values in your messaging, hold up exemplars, or convene events exploring charity and curiosity as thought models.
- Encourage authenticity. Intellectual charity only succeeds if we are willing to share our authentic beliefs with each other. Unfortunately, stress and polarization lead many to self-censor, either out of exhaustion or fear of reprisal. Instead, campus leaders can encourage students to ‘be yourself’ in dialogue. Remind students that their recent experiences and reflections are valuable. Share your own in an honest way. Encourage faculty to craft learning environments that practice authenticity and intellectual charity together.
- Publicize campus resources. Even the most charitable campus climates will experience difficult events. Campus leaders can help by ensuring resources for discussion are known and accessible. Too many faculty members and students are unaware of the free services that are often available to them. Teaching centers help faculty manage “hot” classroom moments, student societies like debate club and BridgeUSA offer controlled spaces for dialogue, and mental-health services support struggling individuals. Campus leaders can help ensure that these resources are frequently publicized, and speak about them in their own messaging.
- Own your institutional mission. Sorting out technology and staying motivated on Zoom left little opportunity to reflect on shared purpose. Yet leaning into university mission can renew purpose and give focus to dialogue. Temple University in North Philadelphia celebrates a mission of perseverance and engagement. During my time there I found that leadership’s intentionality with mission encouraged more community-based learning, and drew campus beyond its interior concerns. Campus leaders can help their communities rediscover the unique claims of their mission and use those principles to ground purposeful dialogue.
- Provide tools for constructive disagreement. Because campus is a busy, diverse place, campus leaders need to equip others to support meaningful dialogue. A variety of digital resources abound to help students, instructors, and departments share ideas openly and disagree productively. Organizations like Free Intelligent Conversation and OpenMind help people have empathetic conversations about challenging topics. Heterodox Academy also offers free tools and resources for perspective-taking and connecting across disagreement. Consider equipping deans and chairs with tools like these to further enrich their environments.
Campus leaders have the privilege to convene bold, authentic dialogue that promotes constructive disagreement without marginalizing others. I will always remember how the president of my alma mater embodied our shared identity as ‘scholar-servants.’ She was intentional in using the phrase, reminded us of the wider world it pointed to, and modeled it in her teaching and volunteerism. It bound us together and drew us beyond our self-defensive mechanisms. By staying visible, underscoring shared values, and signaling civil and charitable debate over polarization and anger, campus leaders can elevate dialogue and set a new standard for ‘normal.’
Kyle Sebastian Vitale, Ph.D., is the Director of Programs at Heterodox Academy, a non-partisan collaborative of over 5,000 professors, administrators, and graduate students committed to promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning. He has taught courses and workshops in writing, literature, and pedagogy for over a decade at the University of Delaware, Yale University, the University of New Haven, and Temple University.
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