Project Hosts Campus Academy

by Jason Ketchum, Salvia Jannat, Rebecca Joseph, and Julia Sivertson

On August 9, 2020, the Divided Community Project commenced a virtual “Campus Academy” for more than fifty leaders from six colleges and universities: Case Western Reserve University, Menlo College, The University of Hawaii at Manoa, The Ohio State University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the University of Oklahoma. Over the course of the three-day program,  these core leadership groups engaged in a variety of learning opportunities to strengthen conflict resolution-related planning and capacity building, to support and strengthen the development of functional local convener groups for these campuses, and to provide space/time to plan  to face the multi-faceted (COVID/racial justice/policing/political polarization) challenges ahead..  The Academy kicked off with a campus-based crisis simulation designed to highlight lessons framed in DCP’s campus-themed reports.  Thereafter, participants engaged in two days of plenary sessions, campus leadership meetings and peer-to-peer conversations designed to support leaders as they consider how to prepare campuses to grapple with potential demonstrations, protests, and divisions which tear at the fabric of the campus community.

The Springton Campus Simulation highlights current tensions on campuses fueled by clashing viewpoints on national immigration policy. The simulation prompted university leaders to consider, in real time, how they might strategically resolve campus tensions in response to contentious proposed legislation, divisive speakers desiring a platform on campus, and the conflicting immigration policy perspectives among campus constituents. Over the course of ninety minutes, Academy participants faced numerous plot-twists which challenged them to think creatively under pressure about their solutions to dealing with campus division.

Following the simulation, Academy participants engaged in a debrief to parse out valuable takeaways while establishing goals, expectations, and points of focus for the following two days. Participants shared with one another moments which were especially surprising or frustrating and important lessons learned from their simulation experience. Academy facilitators concluded the simulation debrief by summarizing strategies identified in DCP’s campus-focused reports which participants could consider implementing on their own campuses.

Because the participants spanned five time zones, from Maryland to Hawaii, the schools were divided into in two groups (east coast/west coast & Hawaii) and the simulations/debriefs were conducted asynchronously.  The two groups came together at the beginning of the second day for the remainder of the Academy.

Beginning Monday, August 10, participants dove into two days of fast-paced plenary sessions and work groups, beginning with a plenary session on dealing with unrest as it occurs. A university chancellor and police chief kicked off the session, providing inspirational lessons by highlighting their own experiences dealing with campus division and unrest, and illustrating concepts including tips for honest and transparent communication.

The second plenary session featured a former U.S. Marshal and a former regional director with the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service and focused on preparing campuses for division and unrest during this time of extreme national polarization. Panelists included leaders from law enforcement and academia. The discussion highlighted protocols and best practices in dealing with conflict and division. Panelists emphasized the need to recognize different categories of incidents on campus in order to respond effectively – distinguishing those incidents that are planned versus spontaneous and those that are structured versus leaderless. Panelists encouraged participants to understand that conflict is a natural phenomenon that is neither inherently positive nor negative, recognizing that once conflict is accepted, it can be managed and channeled into a positive force.

Day two concluded with a plenary session featuring a provost and a chief diversity and inclusion officer who highlighted the need for developing campus resilience, focusing on the proactive positive roles campus leaders can play during times of crisis when a culture of resilience exists. Panelists emphasized a need to rely on pre-existing relationships within the community to create and sustain a culture of resilience. Accessibility and transparency of campus leadership is particularly important. Constituents, including faculty, staff, and students, need to know who their leaders are, what values their leaders align with, and how to reach their leaders when needed.  Transparency builds a culture of trust and respect that fosters the constituents’ willingness to rely on campus leadership. Given the nature of the pandemic, panelists recommended prioritizing technology platforms and social media to sustain accessibility to leadership in a timely fashion. The panelists warned that slow, vague, or defensive responses can be interpreted as invalidatingf constituents’ perspectives. Campus leadership must demonstrate to constituents that the various perspectives are being heard, valued, and considered even, and especially, if the university’s answer is “No” or “This will be a long process.” A genuine, empathetic answer is more important than a perfect one!

On the third and final day, participants attended plenary and small group sessions led by subject matter experts focused on addressing challenges for working in the current context of COVID-19, racial tension, social media and political polarization. COVID-19 brings unique challenges to college campuses. Traditional campuses leveraging on-campus residence halls place great emphasis on sharing common spaces in order to foster community. Social distancing measures and virtual classes can create barriers to the social cohesion. The panelists also discussed anticipating new disciplinary challenges, as thousands of students are asked to adhere to strict public health guidelines. Panelists emphasized the importance of a healthy campus culture that instills communal values in all students, encouraging them to be accountable to each other and themselves.

Panelists highlighted, however, that being “in this together” does not mean that students experience pandemic-related hardships in the same way or to the same extent. Students from backgrounds of privilege may experience new feelings of loss and marginalization due to restricted sense of freedom. Panelists noted that this could create an opportunity to build empathy across student groups, where students in privileged positions could begin to understand the frustration and trauma that accompanies loss of freedom. However, university leaders should be cautious not to allow students in privileged positions to create false equivalencies between COVID-related experiences and the lifelong marginalization of students of color, from low income backgrounds, and other less privileged groups.

Panelists also revisited technological tools for building relationships and provided insight regarding first amendment protections during divisive moments. Notable recommendations included leveraging dispute resolution protocols to help create sustainable environments of empathy and trust on online communication platforms. Additionally, in discussion regarding mitigating and managing hate speech on campus, panelists recommended that campuses provide clear communication on campus values, making clear that hate speech does not align with the campus’s culture of inclusion.

Finally, the third day concluded with an opportunity for participants to self-select from a number of small-group sessions based on their specific interests. Session topics included effective communication on racial issues, designing systems to address conflict and build coalitions to effect systemic change, and understanding social media as a source of abuse and amplification of harmful rhetoric. Participants had the opportunity to engage in small group discussions with subject-matter experts, allowing time for intimate conversation and question-and-answer. Following these sessions, participants came back together for final closing remarks from each other as well as from DCP leadership. Altogether, participants and facilitators spent nearly eighteen hours on Zoom over the course of three days.

DCP will continue to work with the six campuses who participated in the Campus Academy and will look for opportunities to expand this work in the months ahead.

The Campus Academy was funded by the Jacques M. Littlefield Foundation.