Approaches by college and university leaders that seemed constructive a few years ago when conflicts or divisive incidents occurred on campus may meet different reactions today. Intensified conflict and increased hate incidents on campuses parallel the increasingly rancorous national political debate. Some portions of society, and therefore of the campus community, may feel disrespected and under attack. Some students may become further alienated if others, those who are neither targeted nor most directly affected, seem dismissive when these students speak out. Students advocating a progressive agenda for change are more likely today to spark a conservative counter movement, and vice versa. To add to the challenge, information, including false information, now travels swiftly on social media, and events unfold at a rapid pace. Though most of this activity is entirely peaceful, the obligation to protect the safety of students and others understandably looms large in the minds of administrators.
While these changed dynamics present challenges, they also create new opportunities for higher education leaders. Campus conflicts provide teachable moments, a time to encourage students to engage in the issues of the day and learn to advocate, negotiate, facilitate and understand each other. Students become motivated to understand the relationships between democracy and constitutional rights. If offered counseling and other support, they may grow in character and compassion.
Given the heightened challenges and opportunities, and the importance of getting it right, it may be helpful for college and university leaders to learn from the experience of their colleagues at other institutions. Experience that these leaders have can provide insight into additional alternative strategies, including those that allow for both learning and safety, for both inclusion and freedom of expression, and for the development of future leaders.
On January 10, 2020, the Divided Community Project convened nearly four dozen leaders (in person and via ZOOM) to listen for sound strategies that leaders facing division have found useful or wish that they had tried and sharing their valuable experience with other leaders. Thanks to support from the Kettering Fundation DCP anticipates developing two reports providing guidance for campus leaders:
- Key Considerations for Colleg and University Leaders When Conflcits and Divisive Incidents Arise
- Key Considerations for University Leaders: Preparing the Campus at a Time of National Polarization
DCP anticipates releasing both reports publicly in late March.