How colleges can help get a divided nation talking again

Eastern Michigan is one of many institutions providing forums for discussion on polarizing social issues to help students, the public gain an understanding of the other side
By: | November 2, 2020
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On a day that could be one of the most polarizing in this country’s history, one thought has filled social posts: Whatever happens, let’s keep the dialogue open.

Colleges and universities have long played a part in bringing together disparate groups for discussions on politics, social causes and even social unrest. From the Civil Rights Movement to today, campuses have embraced their free thoughts.

Though the forums this year have looked a bit different – virtual as opposed to live on stage – the power of gathering and presenting expert opinion should not be discounted. Now more than ever, students and the public are reaching out for guidance, and colleges certainly can deliver it.

Barbara Patrick is a professor of sociology at Eastern Michigan University who has seen the “highs and lows” of discussions in 2020 … and how quickly they can break down. She says that’s precisely why colleges must find productive ways for dialogue to occur.

“That is a part of our function and our calling as institutions of higher learning,” Patrick says. “We have an obligation to address these issues and create a platform where they can be discussed. I often tell students, if we can’t have these conversations in this environment, we’re not going to be able to have them anywhere in America.”

Barbara Patrick, Eastern Michigan professor

Eastern Michigan, for example, has taken the lead in recent months on a number of topics related to social injustice and public health. Professor Kristine Ajrouch has been on national platforms discussing social interactions between racial and ethnic groups. Professors Grigoris Argeros and Natalie Dove have delved into public health disparities in two local zip codes during the COVID-19 pandemic. And Patrick recently led a three-part series called “Race, Policing, & Social Justice in 2020: Looking Back and Moving Forward.”

She says universities can help by bringing in certain programming and leaders who can spark thought on both sides.

“You should have people who have expertise in the space, but who are also open and know how to create an environment where we can have free-flowing dialogue,” she says. “You want to educate people. You want people to be calmed down and relaxed, so that we can hear each other. And we have the skill set to do that. You also want to find solutions to move forward from some of these issues.”

To learn more about the role universities can play, as well as how students are reacting to the current climate, University Business sat down with Patrick to discuss a number of issues, including her own series on policing and social justice.

Why are universities the right fit for helping lead discussions on polarizing topics?

University professors don’t always agree, but when you get them in a room, they can have discussion on competing views in a controlled fashion. We spend the bulk of our time learning a lot about one little thing, so we develop expertise. People get very good information on both sides. To see facts and evidence from multiple perspectives – exposing the public to that – can be a beautiful thing. Somebody has to help them sort it out and set the agenda. The major networks are not going to invite people with competing ideas. But in the university environment, we have to do that.

How has COVID-19 affected these forums and the way they can be held?

If we were on campus, there might be a lot more people organized in different venues. Now we’re having to do most of our engagement online. The events that the university has put together have been very well-attended by students and shows they are very interested and engaged. I wish we could meet in person because there’s something about the energy that comes from the crowd, when you’re in the place and in the moment.

What initiated the series you held on race, policing and social justice?

The George Floyd case this summer sparked a reaction from people across the country who were highly upset and concerned with policing. But it goes much further that. Here in Michigan, in the city of Inkster, we had the Floyd Dent case (in 2015) that was somewhat similar, except that the citizen did not lose his life. He sued the city and won a financial settlement, and one of the officers who was involved received jail time for his involvement.

We said, ‘How can we have these conversations about policing in a meaningful way where we can engage with police departments, leadership and citizens and bring them together in one venue to have meaningful conversations about the issues? How do we bridge the gap between the two and move forward?’ And so, the policing series actually began with that in mind this summer.

Who was involved in developing the program?

We have a steering committee on the College of Arts and Sciences at EMU. There are four of us: Myself, Stephen Jefferson, who is an associate professor in psychology; Doug Baker, who is the associate dean for the college; and James Egge, who is the chair in the Department of History. I already do research in the space of policing, so I said let’s use the city of Inkster as a backdrop to have this discussion.

What sorts of topics did you talk about during the three events?

The first talk was about police oversight and helping people understand that process, then highlighting weaknesses inside the system from a policy perspective that may allow “bad officers” to remain on the force. We had a discussion about the power of police chiefs and sheriffs vs. the power of the state oversight board as a meaningful way to engage. We highlighted how that process has implications for what happened in the Floyd Dent case.

The second talk was a follow-up on the Floyd case in the city of Inkster. We bought in the current police chief, William Reilly, who has done an exceptional job of bridging the gap between the police department and the citizens of that city. He talked about the role of leadership and the significance of dynamics between leaders, the unions, elected officials and citizens.

Our third event (a panel discussion with a criminology professor, an officer and a former assistant U.S. prosecutor) looked at the core of what these talks were designed to do [talking about] where we are today, where we go from here and how we can move forward as a society in a unified way to begin to address some of these issues.

What other topics could and should be on the radar for universities to address, specifically with students?

There’s a lot that is being left out about their future and their concerns. COVID is a huge issue. Education, funding for higher ed and student loans, debt, energy and the environment. They recognize they’re going to inherit this earth, but there’s a lack of discussion in that space. Health care is a huge topic … and affordable health care.

What about politics? How is that playing out on campus?

I work in a political science department. We don’t always agree, but we’re living in an environment now, where we’re looking at each other from a place of hate, and a lack of understanding. As I watch students engage, you can see the sheer frustration. There is no middle ground. We’ve lost that space where we can come together, sit down and disagree, but have some form of meaningful discussion. Young people, they hit the point where they’re so frustrated, they just don’t even want to talk about it anymore. This is the first time in my career where I have seen students so divided. It’s either you’re on this team or the other team. And that’s sad. All of the political infighting and unrest is having an impact on them. They’re somewhat tired. There are highs and lows. But there are really low lows.

Has their involvement in social causes changed their mindset?

They are hopeful and happy that citizens are getting involved. Some of them feel empowered by engaging with others, and they see that they have a voice. But at the same time, you can sense that they are becoming a bit disillusioned about the way the entire process goes. It’s a learning process for them because social movements take time.

Is this most active we’ve seen students get behind social causes since the Civil Rights Movement?

A big part of the success of the Civil Rights Movement was the willingness of college students to engage. Those college students received training and conversation at universities. This is one of the phases in history that is the most comparable. The way that young people choose to engage, and the way that they are organizing right now is amazing. In the 60s, people held functions, met at local churches and other public venues to organize. These young people send a tweet and they can sometimes have thousands of people to show up at a location to voice their concerns about an issue. It’s fascinating to watch them. It’s shocking what they can do in a matter of minutes.

What are your thoughts and hopes for this year’s election?

My sincere hope is that whatever the election results are, that they don’t further divide us as a nation, they unite us. At some point, we have to stop looking at each other as if we’re enemies.