Preparing for increased tension and division on campus

Current events have set the stage for more energized and polarizing discourse in coming months
By: | Issue: November, 2016
November 7, 2016

The ills of society are often magnified in the high-intensity atmosphere of college campuses.  Over the last two years, violent events involving police officers and a perceived lack of administrative responsiveness to incidents of on-campus racial bias have led to protests and confrontations. On most campuses, these demonstrations were organized to address issues of diversity, tolerance, inclusion, and sensitivity to others who are different from ourselves. Clearly, the inequities still extant in America have driven the conversation. Now, current events—from officer-involved shootings to mass murders by terrorists or their surrogates—have set the stage for even more energized and polarizing discourse in the coming months.

These headline-making incidents will likely increase tensions as students return to campuses across the country.  That we are in the midst of a presidential election in which the candidate of one of our great, historical political parties has deemed it acceptable, or even advantageous, to spew hateful and discriminatory statements is likely to exacerbate the emotional fervor of the discourse on these issues.

Thoughtful consideration and preparation for a possible increase in tension and division are urgent imperatives. Most college and university leaders are cognizant that feelings will be amplified, rhetoric elevated, and the calls for change forceful.  This situation requires leaders to be proactive rather than reactive in the face of such high-stakes challenges. At the start of the semester, faculty, staff, and student leaders can make it clear that the campus community cares about these issues and is committed to both inclusiveness and free and open conversations that are respectful of and sensitive to the thoughts, opinions and feelings of others.

Most recently, the University of Chicago took a public stance on the tenor of campus dialogue, coming down on the side of protecting its long-espoused values of academic freedom in the classroom and freedom of expression in general, even when one person’s utterings may make another person uncomfortable, or challenge common opinions.  Whatever one may think of the Chicago statement’s content, it starts an important conversation and lays out the inherent conflict of multiple values that most in higher education hold dear.  Academic freedom, and freedom of speech and expression, are well-established and cherished tenets, both in higher education and in the fabric of the United States’ political heritage and principles.  At the same time, most educators believe in and promote the benefits of a civil community where open discourse is conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and even kindness; we believe in creating diverse communities in which people of different races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and political persuasions can learn from each other, where our differences are not reasons for division but are cherished for the richness and beauty of their variety.  Responsiveness to the needs and emotions of those who come from a different place or perspective can often clash with the traditions and legal protections of free speech.

At Lasell College, we have several ideas about how to address the anticipated intensity of such complex conversations:

Focus the President’s address at Opening Convocation on the kind of community we want and expect to be while acknowledging the societal forces that permeate our campus environment.  We will ask our students to be campus citizens who take responsibility for their own words and behavior, and to challenge viewpoints with which they disagree, without denigrating the thoughts and opinions of another community member.

Launch an Inclusive Excellence Initiative that seeks input from the whole college community to develop comprehensive departmental and campus-wide action plans that reflect and reinforce the college’s values in order to confront inequities within our campus culture.

Redouble professional development opportunities that help both employees and students understand how things we say and do may be hurtful or offensive to others, whether intentionally or not.  We have added Resident Assistant and peer mentor training sessions and have held multiple workshops for faculty and staff on how to manage conflicts that may arise, and will soon begin training students from a range of backgrounds to collaborate with faculty in leading experiential exercises and diversity-related conversations.

Encourage faculty where appropriate to initiate discussions on officer-involved shootings, terrorist attacks, the presidential debates, immigration policies, and religious animosity, and analyze those topics within the context of their disciplines and the course objectives.

Clarify and widely report the college’s response plan for incidents of bias in an effort to prevent problems from escalating.

Plan faculty and student co-facilitated forums that model discussion about controversial political topics in which participants take conflicting stances on provocative issues.   

Every year colleges and universities receive a new class of students, and hire new employees, who come from an outside world that often seems brutal and cruel.  The atmosphere in many U.S. high schools is less than ideal – homogeneous in race and culture, lacking in intellectual stimulation, or downright mean.   When these students arrive on our campuses, they may bring habits and behaviors that are inconsistent with the values of free speech, respect for differences among people, and common courtesy and kindness that we wish to encourage in our communities.  Leaders do their institutions a favor by planning now to encourage thoughtful discourse on their campuses that demonstrates a commitment to these values, as contradictory as they may sometimes appear.

Michael B. Alexander is president of Lasell College. Jesse Tauriac is director of the Donahue Institute for Ethics, Diversity, and Inclusion at Lasell.