Campus leaders seek more civil discourse

Students leaders at UC San Diego must take ‘Art of Inclusive Communication’ course
By: | Issue: August/September, 2019
August 22, 2019
Principal members of all student organizations at UC San Diego—sororities and fraternities, volunteer clubs, and other groups—are required to take a civility training course called “The Art of Inclusive Communication.” (Photo: UC San Diego Center for Student Involvement)Principal members of all student organizations at UC San Diego—sororities and fraternities, volunteer clubs, and other groups—are required to take a civility training course called “The Art of Inclusive Communication.” (Photo: UC San Diego Center for Student Involvement)

With countless issues dividing the country, leaders of student organizations at the University of California San Diego and elsewhere have made respectful discourse a priority.

Officers in sororities and fraternities, volunteer clubs, and other groups there must take a three-hour workshop, “The Art of Inclusive Communication,” to build conflict resolution, active listening, bystander intervention and emotional regulation skills.

“Our society doesn’t always model the kind of respectful dialogue that fosters healthy and inclusive communities,” says Emily Marx Trask, executive director of UC San Diego’s Center for Student Involvement. “This gives students the opportunity to reflect on their roles and explore their identities as leaders.”

Trask’s team developed the program in collaboration with the San Diego-based National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC). The 1,700 students (out of 35,000 total enrolled) who attend the workshops each year role-play to practice civility skills, Trask says.

The key here is developing a sense of empathy to understand the other person’s intentions, she adds.

Post-workshop, club officers have reported an ability to manage internal conflicts more effectively. Other students have talked about personal moments of courage, such as speaking out when they have witnessed discrimination.

Cafés and dialogues

The NCRC has brought the civility program to about a dozen colleges in the western United States. Administrators are seeking guidance as exchanges of ideas sometimes become divisive among student organizations that represent diverse campuses, says Steve Dinkin, the center’s president. “We still encourage robust debate and differences—it’s all part of the pedagogical system.”

To develop listening skills, students take a moment to summarize another person’s point of view before responding. They also learn to become aware of any biases and how to calm themselves during heated discussions.

In first-year orientation and freshman seminar courses, students at California State University San Marcos focus on the civility principles of self-reflection, care, respect, empathy and acknowledgement of others’ cultures.


Read more: Free speech and inclusion can coexist in higher ed


The university’s inclusive communication initiative then continues with voluntary “civility café” workshops. Students practice engaging in—rather than avoiding—tough conversations, says Dean of Students Jason Schreiber. During three civility dialogues each semester, a facilitator leads participants through a discussion of timely topics, such as immigration and the #MeToo movement.

“We’re providing an opportunity for students and community members to engage in conversations that can be uncomfortable and to learn from one another, rather than putting up walls,” Schreiber says.

Embedding civic learning in coursework

Academic leaders at many colleges are looking to help students—no matter what their major—become responsible, informed and engaged citizens in their future workplaces and in the larger community.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities, through a grant, is sponsoring regional one-day institutes to help faculty teams embed civic learning across the structure, concepts and pedagogies of their undergraduate majors.

The project is the latest in a six-year initiative that looks at a student’s major as a site for deepening each student’s knowledge, skills, values and agency about their responsibility to the larger society.