Make campuses great centres of civil discourse again

The outcome of a looming court battle over Harvard University's admissions policy will have implications nationwide for how United States colleges and universities build the racially diverse student body that most Americans say they favour.

But it won't resolve a corollary challenge that seems to have become exceptionally tense in recent years: How to create a campus environment that lives up to the ideal of college as a place where diverse perspectives come together to address, and perhaps even solve, the nation's most difficult social problems.

That emerged as a critical concern during a wide-ranging conversation earlier this month between a group of US college presidents and journalists who write about higher education. If there was a consensus among the presidents by the end of the evening, it was that they are struggling right along with the rest of the country with the question of how to bridge the deep divides both on campus and across the United States today.

Their discussion offers a glimpse into how the leaders of some of the nation's most selective institutions approach challenges that face American higher education and make decisions that are sure to rankle at least some segments of the public. A survey last spring by Bucknell University's Institute for Public Policy found that well over half of Americans give college education a grade of C or lower. Just 10% gave an A.

College presidents are used to controversy, but the "tone and tenor" of the criticism is different today "than it was even a short few years ago", said Bucknell University President John Bravman, who hosted the event. "Among the starkest realities we have to deal with today is the rapidly changing, it seems, public perception of our entire enterprise."

A survey released last week by Boston public radio station WGBH suggests Americans are, at best, of mixed minds about the state of higher education today.

Nearly six in 10 respondents said they believe college campuses to be partisan environments that favour left-leaning ideology, and nearly eight in 10 said such partisanship is a problem. More than half (57%) said colleges should invite to campus public controversial figures such as Steve Bannon, a former strategist in the Trump administration.

And while 85% of Americans agree that it is at least somewhat important to have a racially and ethnically diverse student body, 72% say they do not support the use of race in college admissions, a practice that the US Supreme Court has upheld over the last 40 years as necessary to achieve campus diversity. That policy is being challenged in the lawsuit against Harvard, set for trial on 15 October in Boston.

America's troubled history of race relations is often at the core of contention. Echoing an incident last Spring in which two black men were asked to leave a Starbucks Coffee shop and then arrested, two black students, in separate incidents on different campuses, were approached by police. Transcripts released at one school, Smith College, show that an employee reporting to police that the student "seems to be out of place". "All I did was be black", the Smith student said in a Facebook post.

In the year since a deadly rally in a Virginia college town drew national attention to the adoption by white supremacists of monuments honouring the Confederacy as a symbol of their movement, campus leaders across the South and in the North have grappled with what to do about similar memorials on their campus, considered to be glorifications of racism by some people but not others.

Duke University swiftly removed a Confederate statue after it was vandalised. Last month at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students and activists toppled a statue honouring Confederate soldiers known as Silent Sam.

At Washington and Lee University, which takes half of its name from Robert E Lee, who commanded the Confederate army during the Civil War, the president rejected a commission's recommendation to turn the Lee Chapel into a museum but also vowed to ensure "that university events do not feel as though they take place in a Confederate shrine".

Controversial speakers

College presidents have responded in similarly mixed fashion about what to do about when controversial public figures are invited to speak on campus. At least 45 times in 2017 and 2018 there were campaigns to block their appearance, according to a database maintained by the non-profit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. In more than half of those cases, the invitations were rescinded; in some cases, the event never took place.

Several presidents at the dinner said they are experimenting, with varying degrees of success, with ways to encourage civil discourse and restore the notion of the college campus as a marketplace of ideas. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that colleges around the country have launched initiatives to encourage students and faculty to engage in difficult conversations constructively.

Some presidents said such programming is necessary. Many of today's students "have trouble connecting, they don't know what it means to belong", said University of Denver Chancellor Rebecca Chopp.

Also voiced was a sense that today's students are more anxious – "anxiety associated with so many things", compared even to five or 10 years ago, said Smith College President Kathleen McCartney.

Today's traditional undergraduates, for example, grew up at a time when school shootings no longer come as a shock, when undocumented students and their friends worry about the threat of deportation, when they face the prospect of paying off student loans for years, when the effects of climate change appear to be surfacing, she said.

Many of these issues arose before the arrival of the Trump administration, but the president's social media habits alone have set a new precedent in the coarsening of civil discourse.

"I think we're going to see the impact of that for years to come," McCartney said. "Once a culture crosses a boundary, it's really hard to change."