At their best, today’s college campuses are places where students encounter diverse people and ideas, and learn to navigate these differences with empathy, respect, and intellectual humility. In reality, though, that has been a difficult goal to achieve. Many students, faculty, staff, and administrators are confronting intense social and political complexity without much support or training to navigate it.

According to one annual survey, when the graduating class of 2020 entered college, they had “the distinction of being the most [politically] polarized cohort in the 51-year history” of the survey. Then the following year’s class was even more polarized. Another recent survey of 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.” Roughly the same percentage think people are afraid of being attacked or shamed on social media by those who disagree with them, and 80% believe that the Internet has fostered an explosion in hate speech.

That was why, at the start of 2021, the Greater Good Science Center launched a project focused on “Bridging Differences in Higher Education”—part of our broader multi-year Bridging Differences initiative, which identifies and spreads research-based strategies for fostering dialogue, relationships, and understanding across group lines.

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With the goals of strengthening these capacities on college and university campuses nationwide, our “Bridging Differences in Higher Education” project centered on:

  • producing an online course that teaches key research-based skills and principles for successful intergroup contact and dialogue, geared toward college campuses and building on our popular Bridging Differences Playbook; these include the skills of listening with empathy, techniques for more compassionate communication, and strategies for finding threads of commonality and shared humanity with someone who might seem very different from you;
  • running two communities of practice (CoP) for leaders in higher education who want to apply the lessons from this course more deeply to their work—one CoP for representatives from 50 individual college campuses (the “campus cohort”), the other for bridging-focused organizations running programs across multiple campuses (the “organizational cohort”);
  • creating multimedia content that spreads lessons learned and stories of success from this work on campuses, amplifying bright spots and drawing more higher education leaders to this work.

Has it worked? More than 8,200 people have enrolled in the online course so far, roughly 30% of whom are faculty, staff, or students affiliated with an institution of higher education.

Before and after the course, we asked participants to complete a survey that included scientifically validated scales measuring their levels of intellectual humility, openness to people with perspectives or backgrounds different from their own, and feelings of connectedness to others. And, sure enough, we found that participating in the course seemed to help them significantly in all three of these areas.

What’s more, when we asked participants to rate their experience after completing the course or CoP, we found that:

  • 95% of survey respondents said the course “deepened my awareness and understanding of key research-based principles for bridging differences.”
  • 91% said the course made them “feel more comfortable and motivated to connect with people who have backgrounds or views that are different from mine.”
  • 91% said the course gave them “skills and strategies that will help me help other people engage in more constructive dialogue and understanding across group lines.”

But perhaps more illuminating are the stories behind those numbers. In fact, based on written survey responses and interviews we conducted with course and CoP participants, we have identified a number of key takeaways from the project that shed light on the value of this work for leaders in higher education. These seven takeaways don’t just testify to the impact of our project; they speak to why this work is so important in the first place—and they offer hope that, with the right incentives and training, campus leaders can reverse the trends of polarization and make college campuses more inclusive and welcoming.

1. Practitioners benefit from the science of bridging differences

Many of the faculty and other campus leaders who participated in the course and CoP already had substantial experience exploring topics related to “bridging differences” in their research or teaching. Yet they reported that the particular body of research that we covered—for example, on psychological principles for positive intergroup contact and dialogue—was new to them.

For instance, Nicholas Longo, a professor at Providence College who co-directs that school’s Dialogue, Inclusion, and Democracy Lab, shared with us that he was unfamiliar with the insights from social psychology and the science of intergroup relationships that we cover in the course, since his expertise is in civic education. The “Bridging Differences” course opened his eyes to how psychological science could be woven into his courses and a campus-wide initiative he is leading.

Liz Joyner, the founder and CEO of the Village Square, a leader in the “bridging” field, said that much of the research was new even to her—and she used it to gauge the integrity of Village Square’s work.

“For many of our practices, this course validated that we were heading in the correct direction—and gave us solid and deeper evidence and arguments for that,” she said. “For a few things, you helped us to understand that we were, in fact, not engaging in the right practice and we needed to make a shift. Both were equally valuable. I believe this course has truly advanced the whole field in our knowledge of how to do our work effectively.”

Similarly, a member of the executive team at Living Room Conversations shared that they “took the course specifically to see how it linked research to bridging work. I certainly gained that perspective and have brought it back to my team, and it will inform our work as an organization.”

2. The core principles of “bridging” can be applied in many ways…

Rather than teaching a specific curriculum that needed to be delivered in a certain way, our course was designed to offer a set of core skills and principles that could be adapted to different settings. For example, we teach the skill of “moral reframing,” where you recast an argument you’re making to speak to the core values of the person you’re engaging with—which first requires trying to understand their values.

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So we were gratified to hear from participants that they used the course material in a wide range of campus situations. Some reported incorporating it into course curricula—some, though not all, of them explicitly focused on bridging differences and civil dialogue—whereas others incorporated it into other aspects of campus life.

For instance, several participants, including an associate dean at Sierra College in Northern California, reported weaving it into work focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion; an administrator at the University of Miami incorporated ideas from the course into her work promoting intergroup dialogue on her campus; a program manager at Howard University drew on it to help navigate challenging dynamics between staff and faculty; and an assistant dean at Samford University (a private Christian university in Alabama) said he planned to weave principles from the course into “faculty senate and professional development avenues.”

3. ...But faculty need resources for the classroom, first and foremost

Originally, our team’s top priority was to support campus-wide bridging efforts, since those have greater reach than single courses and can influence broader campus culture. However, as became clear through our surveys and interviews, faculty were hungry for materials and activities that they could use in their classrooms and courses—that was their most immediate priority.

That makes sense. Weaving this work into the academic curriculum presents many fewer obstacles to implementation than campus-wide initiatives. What’s more, it meets students where they already are (and are required to be) rather than trying to recruit them for something new (and needing buy-in from other campus leaders), making them a strategic point of intervention. And many faculty emphasized to us that the classroom is actually where many conflicts related to civil discourse are taking place.

For example, based on her experience teaching a large “Introduction to American Politics” class at Saint Joseph’s University, a private Jesuit university in Philadelphia, one participant told us, “Even writing a quotation from James Madison on the board can evoke anger from students on both sides of the aisle.” And Jackie Justice, an English professor at Mid Michigan College, told us that she needed the skills we taught in order to effectively facilitate contentious conversations in her classroom—and in doing so, she helped to model and implicitly teach these skills to her students.

Nonetheless, we believe that these classroom-specific efforts will ultimately be strengthened by wider support among campus leaders for “bridging” work across their institution.

4. Even among more experienced “bridgers,” the combination of community, content, and reflection seemed to have rejuvenating effects

At the outset of our project, we anticipated that the organizational cohort would benefit from the opportunity to regularly share best practices with one another. But we hadn’t appreciated how rarely these organizational leaders had been given the opportunity to connect with one another and reflect on their craft. Thus the experience proved to be more deeply meaningful and valuable to them than we—or they—expected.

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“This truly helped me recommit to bridging as a practice,” said Rhonda Fitzgerald, the executive director of the Sustained Dialogue Institute. “I do the work daily, but with this view of things, it helped to consider my daily choices, will, and motivation.”

5. Participants came looking for strategies for work—and found strategies for their lives

Not surprisingly, participants entered the CoP focused on how they would apply the content to their work on campus—indeed, they had to explain this intention in order to gain admission to the CoP in the first place. Thus many seemed caught off guard by how the course resonated with them on a personal level.

“My focus was always professional in this work, and so the personal effects were more surprising and nuanced,” said Scott O’Leary, an administrator and instructor at North Carolina State University who is also the faculty and staff lead of that university’s Campus Conversations Project.

Several shared that the personal impact of the project also supported their professional goals. “The mindfulness information (and practice at the beginning of each session) was life-changing!” said Kristen McCauliff,  the associate provost for faculty affairs and professional development at Ball State University. “I have become more mindful, and it has helped me in my bridging work.”

6. This work requires practice, training, and time

Originally, we had hoped that members of the campus cohort would use the eight-month CoP to enhance a project for their courses or for their entire campus. Instead, it became clear that most of them needed this time first to get a better grasp on the basic principles and practices for bridging differences and civil dialogue, and the science behind these techniques. Many of them then piloted what they learned in targeted ways—for example, the English professor at Mid Michigan College who started to weave lessons from our course into her teaching style.

However, many participants now seem poised to go deeper. Some reported that they plan to build on connections they made with collaborators in the CoP. Others identified specific ways that they will apply ideas from the course, like the assistant professor at James Madison University who told us, “My commitment is to revise my syllabus to incorporate some of the concepts and materials used in this course.”

7. Connecting with peers was key to success

Participants in the course and CoP said they appreciated the science and practices—but most valuable were the discussions and new connections with colleagues in their field.

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“The best part, by far, were the discussions with colleagues around the U.S.,” said Wayne Kip Webster, one of the managers of ASL/English Interpreting Services at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, one of the colleges of the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Their descriptions of the issues, and various attempts to resolve or find better ways, added greatly to my understanding of the issues and programs. Their enthusiasm for this work was infectious and exciting to me.”

Indeed, 91% of CoP participants reported that the most valuable aspect of the CoP was the opportunity to connect with peers in their field and learn from them. This makes sense given how isolating—or demoralizing—this work can often feel, given the broader social environment of partisan conflict and toxic polarization.

“I cannot tell you how grateful I was to gather with university staff and faculty from all over the country this year to share and connect,” said Lia Howard, a student advising and wellness director at the University of Pennsylvania. “Sharing with others and being encouraged by the innovative things folks are doing and their personal stories—it was the perfect time for this kind of community of practice. It was an antidote to these incredibly challenging and often toxic times.”

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