Here are 6 ways to mitigate campus conflict with U.S. election imminent

Faculty and staff will be the boots on the ground, gauging students daily. However, leaders can inspire coordinated efforts across every layer of an institution's system, including alumni and donors, board members, neighboring communities and legislators.

College and university leaders thumped by campus blowback from the Israel-Hamas war find themselves with a perfect opportunity to prepare for a contentious presidential election season in the fall, a new campus conflict guidebook from the Constructive Dialogue Institute declares.

The Trump-Biden showdown is bound to crescendo campuses already fraught with political tension. CDI, the research-driven nonprofit dedicated to fostering campus connectivity, interviewed 21 college presidents, administrators, faculty and staff to gauge how higher education leaders can handle it. While no campus will be impervious to conflict, colleges can mitigate escalations by preparing now.

“A lot of institutions have realized that their policies are inadequate,” says Mylien Duong, senior director of Research and Innovation at CDI and co-author of the report. “They weren’t written to address today’s political climate, and they haven’t been revised in many years. It’s not something they can hold off any longer.”

Here are some of CDI’s principles and strategies leaders can implement to maintain community as the presidential election nears.

Don’t treat the 2024 election as an isolated event

Rather, leaders should leverage existing campus investments in cultural transformation and trust-building learned from the Israel-Hamas conflict, such as creating space for dialogue and auditing and disseminating policies. As vital as these strategies have been, prioritize them as integral components to navigate potential conflicts in the fall.

Place the onus on you—the leader—to better your campus

Faculty and staff will be the boots on the ground, gauging students daily. However, leaders can inspire coordinated efforts across every layer of an institution’s system, including alumni and donors, board members, neighboring communities and legislators.

“Culture is something you can design, and you design it with your decisions,” said a spokesperson for Gapingvoid, a cultural design group.

Evaluate your language

The way your institution communicates can inadvertently reveal its ideology. Commonly used words and phrases, like “safe space” and “harm,” may seem neutral but have varying meanings. When discussing these terms, clarify their intended definitions and engage with stakeholders to establish a shared understanding.

“The language really matters,” said an anonymized president, according to the report. “A lot of campuses, post-election and even this fall, brought students in a room with different political views and then started off by saying, ‘This is a safe space for everybody.’ When you use those words, you silence every conservative kid in the room.”

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Proactively engage with campus hot spots, partners and peers

The trust leadership teams build with stakeholder groups that have previously experienced tension flare-ups is more important than campus policies. Conflicts are oftentimes too nuanced for stolidly written policies; coordinated relationship-building exercises among different bodies of people strengthen bonds.

The more time an institution has to forge these relationships, the more resilient they can be when long-smoldering quarrels inflame.

“You can’t wait until the hottest moments to talk about the hard things,” said one anonymous faculty and program director interviewed by CDI. “I felt fortunate that we could mobilize an effort that we had already invested in to do a better job at responding.”

Coordinate cross-campus efforts

Cross-functional teams can help reinforce institutional nonpartisanship by deepening campus engagement and expanding practices on how to assuage political strife.

Join a visible coalition of peers

A leadership cohort can offer valuable support, generate ideas, provide opportunities for advocacy or serve as a sounding board.

A peer network is especially advantageous in times when higher education faces external pressure. Furman University President Elizabeth Davis’ experience as a member of the Council of Presidents, a coalition that serves as an advisory board to the Association of Governing Boards, has helped foster her institution’s collaboration and understanding with various university board members on the Israel-Hamas conflict.

“How do we help them understand what’s going on? How do we help them tease out what they’re hearing in the news that may relate to Harvard and Penn when the rest of us aren’t remotely like [those institutions]?” she said in a University Business interview last month. “It was really interesting to learn how to work with my board more effectively and how I could help impact how we trained trustees across the country.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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