With political tension across the United States soaring, no institution may feel its effects more acutely than college and university campuses. As the gatekeepers maintaining open and thoughtful campuses, higher education leaders must know how to best navigate these rough waters by identifying what contributes to unhealthy dialogue and what principles leaders can follow to promote a healthy atmosphere for debate.
The Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI), in partnership with The Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program, brought together 22 different college and university campus stakeholders ranging from students, faculty, staff and administrators to analyze how they respond to campus conflict. Assessing stakeholder anecdotes and solutions to hypothetical scenarios involving free speech, CDI and The Aspen Institute released a joint research report that identifies how to best strengthen communication and cooperation on campus when exploring contesting ideas.
Stakeholders concluded that conflicts were most likely to occur with visiting campus speakers between or within student groups; between individual students, faculty and/or staff; between student groups and the administration; between faculty and/or staff and the administration, and between the institution and its surrounding neighbors.
Why (extreme) campus conflict has escalated
Respondents noted that a healthy dose of campus conflict is essential to uphold the mission of higher education. Open dialogue of contesting beliefs exposes its community to new ways of thinking and creates a more informed citizen as a result. However, campus conflict that goes too far can do the reverse: It instills fear in those who wish to speak and in turn inhibits speech.
The report discovered these underlying issues adversely affecting constructive dialogue:
- External pressure facing the school: The most incendiary external pressure may be coming from state legislation meddling with school values. Competition among institutions has become fiercer to keep enrollment up. As a result, they’ve increased their availability of amenities and are enrolling a more diverse student body. However, offering more amenities raises costs, which in turn raises tuition and threatens affordability. Additionally, with a more diverse student body, school leadership has been slow to mirror these changes, and staff is collectively homogenous.
- Internal pressure: Schools are in a cycle of mistrust that both create and reinforce negative behaviors on campus. For example, students don’t feel like their schools are doing enough to ensure academic equity. Couple that with increasing political polarization among individuals and you get a campus that fears speaking openly, for they believe they will face financial and social consequences. This leads directly to the next issue.
- Overreliance on policy: Because the campus community doesn’t trust they can handle conflict among themselves in a professional fashion, they are quick to demand certain ideas are punished or reprimanded through policy. However, policy in most cases cannot take definitive action on speech. As one administrator put it: “Words on paper don’t change behavior.”
While these problems stir issues naturally, social media is a powerful agent exacerbating these issues, “rewarding reactionary, rather than thoughtful, behavior.”
Principles and strategy
CDI and The Aspen Institute found eleven principles students and nine subsequent strategies campus leaders can take to establish a rich market of ideas. Here are some of them.
- (Principle 3) Help activists think past the protests. An institution can’t stop its community from protesting certain issues, but it’s up to the school to help its community make informed decisions. By communicating to faculty, staff and students ahead of time how their actions may go against school policy, the consequences they may receive won’t seem like the school is responding out of a place of retaliation.
- (Principle 5) Prioritize those immediately affected by a campus conflict. Among the dozens of micro-communities and diverse stakeholders across campus, it can be overwhelming to create a tailored response to each one. Schools must concentrate their efforts on communicating thoughtfully with those directly affected.
- (Principle 11) Get out of the reactive space. School stakeholders can sometimes put unwieldy demands on schools that place them “between a rock and a hard place.” When the possible solutions carry too many negative ramifications, find ways to reframe the issue by incorporating stakeholders into the problem-solving. Between leadership and stakeholders, a third path may arise.
- (Strategy 2) Create a low-stakes environment to practice open dialogue. When students and faculty have designated spaces they associate with open communication, they can act as “release valves” when campus conflicts begin to really percolate. Formal designations like town halls don’t attract new voices, so implementing these practices where people already are, like classrooms and staff meetings, might just do the trick.
- (Strategy 8) Invest in and engage expertise. Local expertise coming from social psychologists, experts in crisis communication, ombuds and others have a closer eye on issues than school leaders. The best part is most colleges and universities already have a strong supply of people to go to.