How one university president says colleges can improve civil dialogue

Bringing disparate groups together through well-structured forums is just one way to build trust on both sides.
By: | October 25, 2021
President Eduardo Ochoa talks with students on campus (Photo courtesy of CSU Monterey Bay)

If American society hasn’t been completely severed yet by the Insurrection, the pandemic, politicking and fact vs. fiction, what happens when midterms arrive in 2022 or the presidential election is decided in 2024? Will they be the blows that finally break our collective unity?

Perhaps. But what if that gap could be closed over the coming years? What if disparate parties could come together in civil discourse, engaging peacefully and respectfully? Who would drive change? Businesses? Government? Community leaders?

What about that house on the hill called higher education?

Eduardo Ochoa, the President of the California State University at Monterey Bay and a man who ran in political circles as Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education under former President Barack Obama, believes higher ed should help facilitate dialogue and be a gateway to bring polarized factions together.

“There’s a crying need for us to restore that civic culture,” says Ochoa, an economist and native Argentinian who earned his master’s in nuclear science from Columbia University and his PhD from The New School before being named to the federal post in 2010. “I think many people are realizing that universities—as centers of learning—we have the strongest practice of critical thinking, reasoned discourse and respect for evidence. We have to start taking responsibility to not only model it but also to help our surrounding communities get better at this.”

Ochoa says one of the most important tenets of higher education is to make students more well-educated citizens. The ability to share ideas, listen and offer critical (but not hypercritical) thought is an essential part of learning and maturing.

“It’s not enough to be well-informed. You have to be engaged in a dialogue with your fellow citizens,” he says. “We should make that a much more explicit part of our core academic mission. We should be doing that not only with students but as a sector, systematically creating forums and opportunities for those skills to be developed in our communities.”

After the presidential election won by Donald Trump in 2016, Ochoa and the CSU team successfully brought together those groups for discussions on campus and in surrounding communities. That dialogue fueled speaker series and gatherings, where controversial topics were addressed in a structured environment. The university’s work continues through many initiatives, including its Service Learning Institute.

“That interaction with people who don’t agree forces you to be more nuanced in the way you articulate your thinking instead of shooting from the hip,” he says. “That is the kind of exercise that people need to have more opportunities to engage in.”

Ochoa, a former professor at Cal State University Los Angeles who has been leading CSUMB for nearly a decade, shared his thoughts on civil dialogue and the role colleges can play in bridging that divide with University Business:

Where are we right now as a society in terms of being able to have true civil discourse?

We have lost the ability to have the respectful, thoughtful, exchange of views necessary to have a healthy democracy. Dialogue has broken down to the point where it’s people identify more deeply with their political party. We have become almost like cultural tribes defined by our political party, and the other party’s people become dehumanized. That’s a terrible situation. When you dehumanize the opposition or your adversaries, it justifies doing whatever it takes to stop them, even ignoring the democratic rules of engagement.

One of the things that distinguished the United States in the past was the absence of extreme political positions and a healthy skepticism unless you’re shown evidence. But it’s really degraded. This is not just on the Right, it’s on the Left. I’m concerned about some of the things that are happening on campuses where certain views are considered beyond the pale, and their mere utterance is suppressed under the guise of not making people feel unsafe.

Is the current climate too polarizing to even have those types of discussions?

Even though COVID changed the conversation a little bit, in some ways, the way people are reacting to COVID is even more alarming. It shows that it is more than just political divide, it’s become an epistemological divide. There are literally two realities here that seem to have very little contact. You’ve got people on one side that trust in science and are willing to take the vaccine, and there are others who live in some sort of alternative universe. But you can’t throw it in people’s faces and say, ‘why aren’t you getting vaccinated’ and heap contempt on them. That doesn’t work. We have a real problem with making sure that we stay empirically grounded. Without that, democracy can’t work. We become completely vulnerable to demagogues, which is the danger we’re facing now.

What must higher education institutions do to further the dialogue on college campuses and make an impact?

We need to adopt collective impact practices.  The way to effect change when you have so many independent decision-makers is to bring people together on a voluntary basis and achieve consensus on big goals, and then move forward in a concerted way. For higher ed to really make a difference, we would have to have a national movement, where universities as a sector embrace this as part of our core mission.

You wrote an article published by the American Association of Colleges & Universities that talked about CSU Monterey Bay fostering civil discourse in the wake of the 2016 election. What came out of that and what has been happening at CSU since?

We had a portion of our student body that was happy with the election outcome. And then we had another portion that was in shock. There was pressure for us to create a campus forum in which we could digest the results and try to navigate a conversation across the political divide. The great outcome was that people who came in with an antagonistic attitude were able to talk to each other in a more respectful and moderate way through the framing of the conversation, spending time face to face across a table and listening to speakers. We ran several off-campus community forums with the same format on hot-topic issues, like health care and immigration. I think this particular tool would work really well in battleground states, in places where people have starkly different opinions about issues.

What are the elements that make for successful civil discourse?

In order to have trust, you have to first recognize the other person’s humanity. [Referencing Daniel Yankelovich’s book The Magic of Dialogue: Conforming Conflict into Cooperation] It isn’t just conversation. It isn’t brainstorming. It isn’t debate. Dialogue is where you listen in a way that does not judge what you’re hearing but are simply seeking to understand what the other person is saying. If you do that before leaping to debating or evaluating the correctness of a particular viewpoint, you begin to recognize your common humanity. You may be able to find some points to empathize with. Once you do that, it creates a precondition of trust. And trust creates an opening to consider different viewpoints.

Is there anything else can higher education leaders do to help in the cause?

It’s important to raise awareness of this issue and get people thinking about how we can organize ourselves to address it. Higher education institutions educate students and prepare them for the workforce, but historically, we are also the repositories of culture and knowledge. We don’t want to be ivory towers, indifferent to the chaos outside our gates. We can’t just simply raise the drawbridge and hope that the storm will pass. We have to go out there and help our communities address this issue.