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Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America, stands in front of a podium facing a crowd of campus officials.

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America, spoke with campus leaders about advancing pluralism and bridging ideological divides on campuses.

Sara Weissman

About 140 college and university leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday for a conference on fostering campus pluralism in response to ongoing student conflicts over the Israel-Gaza war and rising antisemitism and Islamophobia nationwide.

The event, called “Advancing Campus Pluralism: Building Bridges Across Difference,” was hosted by Interfaith America, an organization focused on religious diversity, and the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). Higher ed leaders spoke of the importance of bridging ideological divides as a part of a liberal arts education, shared experiences navigating sometimes thorny leadership terrain since the Oct. 7  Hamas attack on Israel and discussed how the concept of pluralism connects to fractious national debates about diversity, equity and inclusion.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U, said in her opening remarks that the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel “sent shockwaves around the world” and thrust campuses into the international spotlight amid the student protests that followed. She added that higher ed as a whole was also effectively put on trial when the presidents of Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were brought before Congress for a hearing on campus antisemitism in December.

The questions the three presidents were asked, and the media storm that followed, “repeatedly” positioned “campus commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion as inevitably sliding into antisemitism, rather than as a critical component of countering them,” Pasquerella said. At the same time, supporters and critics of the presidents believed their “liability-driven responses” contributed to a growing distrust in higher education.

“Now more than ever, we need to collectively reaffirm the ways in which both pluralism and liberal education are essential to higher education’s mission,” Pasquerella told the campus leaders, “the ways in which they help students discern the truth, serve as catalysts for interrogating the sources of narratives, including history, evidence and facts, promote an understanding that the world is a collection of interdependent yet inequitable systems, expand knowledge of human interaction, privilege and stratification, help advance justice locally and globally by liberating the mind from the dangers of ideological filtering.”

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith America, said campuses should be models for the rest of the country on how to bridge differences of identity and ideology. He believes college graduates who are taught those skills could help city councils and school boards fractured by political conflicts and benefit companies with diverse pools of employees.

“A signature element of an American college education is that it gathers people from a diversity of identities and a divergence of ideologies to learn from one another, to cooperate together,” he said. “This is distinct in human history” to see such diverse student bodies saying, “you’re my lab partner, you’re the person I play intramural volleyball with, you’re the person I read Chaucer with.”

He believes the richness of that campus pluralism is done a disservice when students think of their identities in terms of “oppressed” and “oppressor.” He also said that a diverse student body means there are going to be disagreements, but those can be productive if students have the tools to have difficult conversations.  

“I want to say this to incoming first-year students, did you not think there were going to be conflicts?” he said.

Promoting Civil Discourse

In an opening panel, several higher ed leaders and scholars discussed how they think and teach about the concept of pluralism and some of the challenges they’ve faced amid the Israel-Gaza war. The discussion veered into broader conversations about free speech, campus ideological diversity and campus diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in a polarized political landscape.

Campus administrators are currently having “to do work on issues of a hostile environment,” said Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant Professor of political philosophy, ethics, and public policy at Harvard University and director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation and the Democratic Knowledge Project. But she emphasized that it’s also important to do the long-term “precedent-setting work” that’s going to ensure there’s a norm established on campus that students dialogue respectfully with one another.

Daniel Diermeier, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, said all incoming Vanderbilt students sign a pledge to “civil discourse,” authored by student leaders, and Vanderbilt has a program called “Dialogue Vanderbilt” to teach civil discourse skills. He noted that the current U.S. ambassador to Israel and the former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority separately visited a Vanderbilt international politics class last month, a manifestation of that value.

His institution is also committed to “institutional neutrality” which he believes creates more room for discussion and debate among professors and students. He said that principle was a recent source of frustration to students advocating for the university to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, a call for institutions to avoid giving business to companies they see as profiting from Palestinian oppression.

A “small group of students” have “zero interest in civil discourse” and want to engage in “arm-twisting,” he said. “I think that’s a sign of the times. I think it’s a very interesting, and to me, somewhat worrisome trend.” He believes that dynamic has been “turbo-charged” since Oct. 7.  

Broadly, he wants to see diversity more than “tolerated” by students but seen as a “source of enrichment, a source of joy.”

Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury College, emphasized that engaging in constructive dialogue across difference is a necessary skill set for graduates to build and use later in life.

“We need pluralism because we will have to inhabit the other’s point of view at some point for our own survival,” she said. She added that to develop those skills, students need to be given local opportunities to practice them, and “it needs to be cool.”

“I want those skills to be as cool as AI knowledge,” she said.  

Patton spoke of the college’s “conflict transformation” initiative, launched in 2022 with a $25 million seven-year grant, which includes conflict transformation skills classes for students and faculty trainings on conflict mediation and dialogue and “viewpoint diversity,” among other topics.  

A couple of audience members at the conference questioned what terms like “viewpoint diversity” mean to campus leaders at a time when conservative state lawmakers are using the same term in bills that limit DEI efforts. For example, Utah recently enacted legislation that barred public universities from having DEI programs and called on them to adopt strategies to “promote viewpoint diversity.”

Diermeier acknowledged terms like “viewpoint diversity” are “contested.”

He said there’s a part of DEI work that’s “totally common sense,” namely its goals of “providing access” and “realizing potential,” but then there’s political fracturing over other understandings of those words, such as the “oppressor/oppressed paradigm.” He believes it’s important for higher ed leaders to be “clear and crisp” about what they mean by DEI.  

Patton said Middlebury administrators have steered clear of Republican pushback to campus DEI work by framing it as “building community” and prioritizing that as the "primary goal."

“Right now, that shift has worked to allow us to continue to talk about it …” she said.

Allen believes too often “identity” diversity and “viewpoint” diversity are discussed separately in academia when she believes they’re part of the same issue.

Pluralism “is about understanding what everybody has to contribute to that experience of mutual learning,” which should be an “intense, exciting, exhilarating experience,” she said. “… We don't need bifurcated tracks to be thinking about all the different backgrounds people bring to the table and all the different perspectives and viewpoints. We should think about that as one thing, and that’s what pluralism is.”

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