Campus leaders across the U.S. are implementing strategies for better relationships, dialogue, and understanding across divides.
Most colleges and universities provide an opportunity to meet people who have different faiths, politics, identities, and life experiences. If the campus culture fosters belonging, this diversity exposes students to new ways of thinking. It expands students’ outlook about the world around them, and even changes the way they see themselves. That is what the college experience should be all about!
But this diversity can also present enormous challenges, especially in today’s climate of worsening division and polarization—whether it’s about mask protocols or vaccinations for COVID-19, or demands for the campus to do more on racial justice. Global issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict can find their way onto an American campus and lead to interpersonal conflict across individuals and groups. Sometimes that conflict isn’t productive, and becomes harmful or violent—arguments turn into lawsuits, property damage, or worse.
A 2017 survey of more than 3,000 college students, conducted by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, found that 61% of students believe that “the climate on their campus prevents some students from expressing their views.” It’s not just students who are experiencing these ruptures on campuses across the country—so are faculty, staff, and administrators.
This is why the Greater Good Science Center created the Bridging Differences course with a special emphasis on higher education. The goal of the course is to teach research-based strategies for better relationships, dialogue, and understanding across divides—and though we created it with campuses in mind, the course is relevant to anyone navigating conflicts and differences.
We’ve heard from campus leaders across the country that a course like this is timely, beneficial, and necessary. Out of these conversations, we surfaced five times when campus leaders succeeded in building bridges between antagonistic groups. We hope they’ll provide you with some inspiration for building bridges, wherever you live and work.
1. Navigating controversial topics at an Oregon community college
A few semesters ago, Linn Benton Community College in Oregon put up a public sculpture by a local artist that depicted two naked men holding each other. It sparked a controversy on campus—the local newspaper wrote about it, the Board of Education and parents got involved, and students were split into two factions.
“Some people thought it was very bold and in support of the LGBTQ community,” said Mark Urista, who teaches public speaking and argumentation. “Others thought it was inappropriate and a threat to their morals and values.”
When a big donor threatened to stop contributing to the school, “it turned into a full-on crisis,” Urista said.
Like most community colleges, Linn Benton has a very diverse student body, and it sits between two politically divergent counties: Linn County, which has voted for a Republican U.S. president since the 1970s; and Benton County, which has voted for a Democratic U.S. president since the 1980s.
“I thought it would be such a great topic for my argumentation class, but tensions were so high that I wasn’t sure if I should bring it up,” Urista said. “After one of my classes, two students came into my office and said, ‘We think the artwork is inappropriate and we want to debate it in class.’”
For Urista’s class, students must be prepared to argue both positions. Then, on the day of the debate, students flip a coin to decide whether they are for or against the topic—in this case whether the art piece should be kept up or removed, and why.
Before the debate, the two students created arguments that supported their own beliefs about why the art piece should be taken down. But they also pushed themselves to consider why it should stay up—even though this was in opposition to their views.
On the day of the debate, the two students flipped a coin and had a spirited debate. By the end, the whole class got out of their seats and applauded—it was one of the only times in Urista’s career that he’d ever seen a response like that to a debate.
“Afterward, the students told me, ‘You know Mark, we aren’t fans of the art work but we do have an issue with censorship,’” he said. “‘If we took it down, it could open the door for other things to be censored, too.’”
The debate made such an impact that Urista and the two students decided to do another one with a larger audience. They recruited two additional students and hosted a well-attended campus-wide debate.
In the end, the students of Linn Benton were able to have a productive dialogue by embracing bridging practices such as perspective taking and giving, and by providing an avenue for students to argue both sides. The conversation led to a new policy for racy art work that warned students they would see something that might feel inappropriate to their culture or beliefs. They formed a Debate Club to tackle similar issues on campus, and administrators at Linn Benton Community College—all the way up to the president—made public statements about the need for understanding and relationships across differences.