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A male teacher leads four students, sitting in a circle and two of them at desks while two of them are sitting on top of desks.

Explicitly established norms can highlight ideas such as the value of uncomfortable learning, calling in instead of calling out and being conscientious about how one’s speech might affect others.

Eduard Figueres/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The 2024 election is on the horizon, and if the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack has shown us anything, it’s that institutions of higher education are facing a daunting challenge while under increased scrutiny. Many leaders are pondering difficult questions: How can universities repair their campus climates and better support students as they grapple with complex societal issues? How can campuses address the tensions between free speech and inclusion such that these values are mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive? 

This moment presents an opportunity for colleges and universities to not only regain public confidence but proactively prepare for future conflicts at a time when confidence in higher education is at an all-time low.

Drawing from years of experience leading the Constructive Dialogue Institute, a nonprofit that specializes in using research-based methods to assist institutions of higher education in navigating such challenges, I offer 10 principles to help create campus environments that support meaningful engagement across lines of difference.

  1. Take a holistic approach. The causes of many campus conflicts and cultural issues are multifaceted; these problems cannot be solved with one-off approaches. Instead, campus leaders should take a systems approach to improving discourse on their campuses. That entails analyzing the university as a complex system to identify the root causes of the problem, who the influencers are across the institution, where there are levers for change and how the various aspects of the system work together to advance or inhibit the goals of dialogue and belonging. This comprehensive approach should engage stakeholders across the institution, from college presidents to students and everyone in between.
  2. Establish clear expectations. Universities should set clear expectations for members of their community about how they are expected to conduct themselves on campus.
  • Admissions: From the moment prospective students land on your website, it should be clear that your campus will be a place where they will encounter diverse perspectives, be challenged intellectually and be expected to engage respectfully with people with differing backgrounds, beliefs and values. This theme could be carried through your admissions process through the application questions. A similar approach could be taken for hiring staff and faculty members.
  • Codes of conduct for students, student groups and faculty: Clearly articulate expectations for various stakeholders and delineate the consequences of violating these rules. For example, policies should explain what types of protests are allowed on campus and what behaviors infringe on others’ free expression. Proactively share counterprotesting techniques that allow students to voice their concerns without denying others their right to speak.
  1. Share a compelling value proposition. It’s imperative to articulate the importance of free expression and engaging in conversations across differences in a manner that resonates with students.
  • For students who are motivated by social change, share historical examples of how free speech and coalition building have driven societal transformations.
  • Emphasize that, increasingly, employers are looking for job candidates who possess skills to engage constructively across differences.
  • Remind students that these skills are lifelong assets that will help them navigate conflicts in all domains of their lives.
  1. Begin early. Social science research has demonstrated that the beginnings of communal experiences play an important and long-lasting role in shaping the expectations of how group members behave. Focus your attention on the start of new group experiences, such as first-year experiences or the beginning of a semester. Ensure these experiences are designed to foster a sense of common purpose, shared identity and trust. From day one, take the time to explicitly establish norms tailored to various contexts. Norms should highlight ideas such as the value of uncomfortable learning, calling in instead of calling out, being conscientious about how one’s speech might affect others and giving others the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to correct mistakes.
  1. Offer skill-building opportunities for various stakeholders. Beyond students, I consistently hear from faculty and staff that they also lack the skills to facilitate difficult conversations and even engage in these conversations themselves. Consider embedding dialogue skills into core curriculum for students, providing training for new staff and faculty, and disseminating these skills through centers for teaching and learning. Curricula and training should be tailored to the needs of various campus stakeholders.
  2. Align incentives. Ensure incentives are designed such that various stakeholders will adopt the desired behaviors.
  • For students, rather than assigning a program over the summer when there is no accountability, embed programs into first-year seminars or other general education courses that students are required to take.
  • Similarly, for faculty, an institution’s Center for Teaching and Learning could develop incredibly useful training for facilitating meaningful conversations about controversial issues—but without incentives, faculty likely will not complete the training. Potential ways to encourage faculty to engage include offering research stipends, integrating training into tenure or promotion criteria, or creating an award recognizing faculty members who excel in facilitating meaningful dialogue in classroom discussions.
  1. Teach academic methodology early. Many of the methods and epistemological practices of academic disciplines are excellent ways for students to learn and practice the skills required for democratic citizenship. Philosophy teaches logic, critical thinking and how to identify fallacies. Sociology and anthropology teach qualitative research methods that require students to ask open-ended questions, engage in deep listening and take a nonjudgmental approach to learning about different cultures. Many scientific disciplines teach students how to evaluate different standards of evidence—for example, the differences between lived experiences, statistics and the scientific method. Take advantage of these natural opportunities and ensure students learn these methods early on.

Resources to Advance Dialogue and Belonging on Campus

The Constructive Dialogue Institute offers a comprehensive suite of tools to support campuses in achieving this goal, including strategy support for college presidents; professional development for staff, faculty and administrators; an evidence-based blended learning program for students; and analytics to track outcomes. Beyond our work, there is a growing field of nonprofits working to support bridging differences on campuses, including Interfaith America, the Institute for Citizens & Scholars and BridgeUSA.

  1. Explicitly integrate free expression and DEI education. An increasing number of institutions have been incorporating content about free expression into their orientation curricula. While this is an important move in the right direction, take it one step further by offering programming that integrates these two concepts. Such programming should challenge the view that the values of free speech and DEI are irreconcilable. Instead, it should explore the important role free speech has played in advancing social causes throughout American history.
  • Explain that to create an inclusive community, people must feel comfortable expressing themselves. Likewise, to ensure that all members of a campus community feel comfortable expressing themselves, considerations must be taken to make people feel included.
  • Make time for students to wrestle with these tensions and explore questions like “What behaviors would allow all students to feel comfortable expressing themselves honestly?”
  • Give students opportunities to role-play scenarios they might encounter when free speech and inclusion are in tension so they feel prepared to handle challenging situations when they arise.
  1. Establish structures to build relational trust. On many campuses, predictable fault lines emerge between various academic departments and among different student groups. Administrators can proactively create structures to bring these opposing groups together.
  • Consider requiring student organization presidents to meet once a month over dinner to discuss campus issues with senior administrators. By bringing student leaders together on a recurring basis to share a meal, they will begin to form rapport and even friendships. When a crisis erupts on campus, they will be more likely to discuss the issue through back channels, thereby reducing the likelihood of a public incident.
  • Similarly, consider ways to bring together faculty members from different departments, like Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, using mechanisms such as grants to co-create and lead new courses exploring differing perspectives on complex issues.
  1. Measure impact. What works on one campus or even in one department might be ill suited for another. It is essential to establish clear, multiyear goals; rigorously track progress over time; standardize measures; and adjust as needed. Impact can be measured at a variety of levels, including attitudes, beliefs, competence, behaviors and sense of culture.

Universities are complex systems. It will require significant coordination and intentionality to bring about meaningful and durable culture change, preparing our students to be stewards of a pluralistic democracy. Leaders can get ahead of potential 2024 election conflicts on campus by beginning to invest in this work now.

Caroline Mehl is the co-founder and executive director of the Constructive Dialogue Institute.

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