College campuses have traditionally served as the forum where ideas are formed, discussed, contested, and refined. Colleges and universities are charged with advancing societal knowledge, grappling with complex ideas, and preparing future civic leaders. But in recent years, many U.S. college and university leaders have found it increasingly challenging to advance the mission of higher education in the context of hyperpolarization, societal division, and social conflict.

Students sitting in a circle having a discussion in the classroom

Our teams at the Constructive Dialogue Institute and the Aspen Institute collaborated to help shed light on the path forward for higher education leadership. Specifically, we wanted to examine the question: When tensions arise on campus, how can campus leaders respond in a manner that does not avoid conflict but transforms it into an opportunity for learning and dialogue, while maintaining institutional trust and building community?

Our report, Transforming Conflict on College Campuses, is the result of a research project that consisted of interviews and focus groups with a variety of campus members, ranging from students to faculty to staff to senior administrators across the country. Participants offered their perspective on their campus’s current climate, their personal experiences navigating controversial issues, and their recommendations about what ought to be done to build a healthy culture of dialogue on campus.

Why campuses are divided

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Through distilling these interviews, our researchers were able to identify six key contributors to conflict on college campuses.

External pressure. Participants named a variety of forces stemming from outside the academy that have contributed to an ideologically charged culture on campuses. Decreasing enrollment and the resultant competition for students have put many colleges in “survival mode,” which participants stated raised the stakes on many of the debates unfolding on campuses. Legislation and political pressure for universities to conform to certain societal visions has fueled arguments on campus and, in many cases, impeded on administrators’ ability to address given topics or implement changes. A national discourse around diversity, equity, and inclusion has pushed many campuses to rethink their central role in society, leading to arguments about higher education’s mission and function. Lastly, participants noted how increased media attention on higher education has transformed issues that were once local into the subject of national debates.

Internal pressure. In addition to pressure from outside the campus, participants named several pressures they face from other campus members. These internal pressures tended to stem from competing visions for what the university ought to be and how it ought to function. Participants often described divergences around whether universities should take clear stances on or action toward certain political or social issues, or if they should remain neutral.

Social media. Interestingly, while participants in our research often disagreed with each other, they tended to agree that social media has not caused conflict on campus but exacerbates conflicts that already existed. The predominant feeling is that a tension point on campus that, in the past, could have been resolved more quietly and easily now risks becoming fodder for social media, essentially raising the stakes.

Policy limitations. Participants shared that while university policies typically address students’ rights regarding speech, this can be insufficient for setting expectations of what speech on campus should look like. For example, free speech policies will permit students to call each other names, make character-based accusations, etc., although these types of speech may not be befitting constructive conversations. This can lead to confusion over what the university values, what is asked of community members, and what the university “permits” versus “encourages.”

Organizational complexity. Colleges and universities have become larger, more complex organizations than they used to be. They have become less centralized and have taken on more functions and purposes. This has made it more difficult for leaders to “set the tone” on campus and to create clear articulations of the institution’s values, priorities, and vision.

Head versus heart. The students we interviewed shared a common attitude that university cultures tend to value the intellect over the “human.” Faculty tend to be better equipped for addressing a student’s scholarship, analytical ability, and the like than for supporting their emotional growth and well-being. A new generation of students who are more conscious about mental health have expectations about being nurtured emotionally, rather than simply intellectually. As many faculty members are unprepared or unwilling to meet this demand, tensions tend to arise. 

What can we do?

Participants shared several big-picture values that universities can lead with to create a better culture of dialogue and deliberation on campus. Our researchers divided these insights into 11 principles.

Establish norms proactively. Often, campus leaders do not respond to issues on campuses until there is a crisis. This is understandable as they are, of course, busy and limited in bandwidth. But addressing the culture on campus proactively—rather than being in reaction mode—can make a big difference.

This proactive work can take many different forms. For example, it could look like establishing institutional values with regard to dialogue and deliberation (and clearly communicating these values to the entire campus community); providing students with opportunities to practice arguing about pivotal topics, both inside and outside the classroom; or closely examining the institution’s policies with regard to speech to ensure that they match up with its goals.

Disambiguate terms within your community. Buzzwords like “free speech,” “inclusion,” and “civil discourse” carry a lot of weight, but often campus members have different concepts about what these terms mean. As a proactive step, campus leaders can take time to clarify what exactly they want the campus to be, and perhaps invite dialogue around these abstract concepts.

For example, when we say we want students to feel a sense of belonging, what do we mean? Belonging to what? How is belonging related to and distinct from inclusion? Or as another example: What do we mean by safe spaces or safety? Does psychological harm entail psychological discomfort, psychological trauma, or something in between? What does it mean to do harm to a group of people? As much as possible, ensuring that people have shared definitions of common terms can prevent them from talking past each other.

Help activists think through the protest. A common source of conflict results from perceptions that disruptive activists are over- or under-punished. Setting clear expectations about what is permitted and what consequences, if any, can be expected can help students make informed choices.

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Dialogue cannot be mandated. Unless participants have opted into a conversation, it is not likely to go well. And social psychology research tells us that a failed attempt to discuss or resolve a conflict can backfire and make tensions worse. Instead, campus leaders can try to encourage dialogue or highlight its benefits. Campus leaders can give students opportunities to talk about pivotal issues, and try to show students that engaging with people they disagree with can help them learn, build community with others, or get their point across.

Triage your response. This principle is for when you find yourself in “reaction mode.” In the immediate aftermath of a conflict on campus, try to ask yourself who has been harmed most in this scenario and speak to them first. Then expand your response to address other relevant people on the campus. This can go a long way to making community members feel seen and heard.

Reveal how the system works. Students, especially, feel frustrated when they do not understand how decisions or reforms on campus are made. Additionally, when progress is slow—as it often is in higher education—this leads to further frustration. Practicing transparency to explain how exactly universities operate can help create patience and understanding among campus members.

Our teams often heard from students that it is difficult for them when they bring an issue to the university’s attention and then are unsure if anything is being done about it. These same students noted that if a university spokesperson shares that the institution is working to address an issue, they are generally accepting and understanding of the fact that these institutions are complicated, and the process takes time. Flare-ups, however, are more likely to happen when nothing is shared with students.

Work within your locus of control. Many aspects of a conflict on campus may lay outside your sphere of influence. To make a difference, focus on what you can control and start there. Articulating what you can and cannot address—perhaps by explaining the institution’s policies, regulatory limitations, or decision-making process—to the people concerned can be a useful step, as well. If you are unable to actively address a situation that is upsetting community members, making yourself available to listen to them and make them feel heard can go a long way.

Resolution is not always possible. There is often an instinct to resolve a conflict as quickly as possible, but that is not always realistic. What is realistic, however, is to strive toward healthy, productive conflict rather than toxic conflict.

Center dignity. Even if you feel that “the institution” needs to respond to “the student body,” do not lose sight of the fact that there are humans in the midst of these conflicts. Taking an approach that leaves room for the full spectrum of humans involved, including their different perspectives and emotional reactions, can help set a better tone. Some tips include not assuming that all students or faculty members are aligned on a given topic, providing opportunities for community members to provide input on institutional decisions, or finding ways for the community to come together to process major events or milestones. 

Where there is no precedent, focus on the novel. Colleges and universities are dealing with conflicts today that they have never dealt with in the past. Responding in these scenarios can be more difficult than falling back on precedent. When faced with a new problem that there is no clear policy precedent for, think creatively about how to call in new voices to help envision a path forward. A new challenge on campus can be reframed as a new opportunity to empower someone on your campus to help and to tap into resources or expertise within your community that have not been leveraged before.

Shape a different conversation. Sometimes, you will find that you are being forced into a conversation that is reductive or binary—for example: “Should the university prioritize ‘free speech’ or ‘inclusion’?” The real question that needs to be asked may be much more nuanced than that. Do not shy away from nuance and complexity when shaping a new conversation that needs to be had among campus members.

Our report expands upon these principles and offers more concrete strategies for transforming conflict on college campuses. You can access the full report here.

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