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Four Ways College Presidents Can Depolarize Campus Discourse this Election Cycle

The 2019–20 academic year portends to be a particularly challenging year for free, open, and respectful campus discourse as the 2020 election amplifies political voices and disagreement in the country and on our campuses.

College presidents and their leadership teams must prepare for the year ahead, in a way that diffuses tensions and helps students develop habits of thoughtful citizenship. With their mission to advance and transmit knowledge, colleges and universities have a special role to play in preparing the next generation for citizenship in our democracy, which settles disagreements with facts, ideas, and persuasion. Presidents set the tone for campus culture by how they speak of their school’s institutional values, including the value of open, respectful exchange.

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Here are four ways college presidents can prepare for the year ahead:

  • Be honest about how hard open, respectful conversation can be. Especially in this polarized political climate, no one can expect it to be easy to talk about controversial issues. Share the message with students of the skills they should strengthen while on campus: listening respectfully, clearly articulating one’s own case, and responding constructively to disagreement. Empathy is a powerful tool that can lead to a deeper understanding.

  • Endorse expertise. The nation’s challenges cannot be reduced to soundbites or tackled with simple solutions. But too many reach political views by taking their cues from peers and social media, without learning much about the issues or harkening to experts. Holding a series of forums on a few of the issues important to this election, such as immigration, climate change, funding for college education, health care, and gun control, featuring experts with a range of viewpoints on these issues would create opportunities for thoughtful and informed campus conversations.

  • Give leadership’s imprimatur to viewpoint diversity. Campus leaders signal that it is important to their campus culture to hear out thoughtful views, on all sides of an issue, by putting their imprimatur on campus policy forums. Some examples include the University of California, Berkeley chancellor Carol Christ initiating a “Conversations Across the Divide” series; University of Richmond president Ronald A. Crutcher establishing the “Sharp Viewpoint Series” and “Spider Talks” that take on difficult issues.

  • Encourage student engagement. Student groups can take a constructive role in defusing polarization on campus. College presidents can meet with student political groups to plan events where students can hear from their peers about why they hold the views that they do. For example, University of Maryland, Baltimore County president Freeman Hrabowski speaks of the importance of consulting regularly with leaders from young Democrats, young Republicans, and other student groups so that he and student leaders can come together to diffuse controversies and plan creative forums on difficult topics (here, staring at 24:25). One possibility: student political groups could hold follow-up forums or debates after campus issue forums with policy-area experts.

For many students, the 2020 election will be the first campaign in which they are eligible to cast a ballot. It is a chance to shape habits about how to formulate conclusions on political issues, to talk with those whose political views differ from their own, and to be an engaged citizen. Presidents and campus leaders have an important opportunity in the year ahead to shape the next generation of citizen leaders and to help move past this era of polarization.

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