Moving Toward Engaged Pluralism on the College Campus

Despite the efforts of many people in higher education, student experiences reflect and reinforce broader patterns of inequality, write Elizabeth Bradley and Candice M. Lowe Swift, who describe a large-scale and ongoing approach to help meet that challenge.

December 3, 2019

The benefits of diversity can be substantial for college students -- including improved academic self-confidence, critical thinking skills and the ability to cooperate with people from different backgrounds -- if only all students were reaping those benefits today. Unfortunately, however, experiences on our campuses reflect and reinforce broader patterns of inequality, echoing this country’s larger sociocultural environment. Increasing polarization can make conversing, let alone thriving, across social and political difference particularly difficult.

Extensive institutional change is necessary on campuses, but how? Evidence about the design, implementation and impact of comprehensive approaches has been limited.

But at Vassar College, we are beginning to learn more from a large-scale, ongoing effort to promote inclusion and a sense of belonging among our college’s students, faculty members, administrators and staff members. With funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Office of the President at Vassar College, we have launched the Engaged Pluralism Initiative, or EPI.

Vassar made for a compelling case study for the initiative, as a decade earlier, the college implemented admissions and financial aid practices to increase the representation of students from low-income backgrounds and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, as well as students who are the first generation in their families to attend college. Between 1997 and 2017, the number of students and faculty of color on our campus almost doubled, while the number of first-generation students also grew significantly.

Yet we found that merely increasing the percentages of underrepresented social and economic groups on campus was insufficient. The college devoted resources to workshops; established an associate dean position to focus on student growth and engagement, as well as to oversee diversity centers’ programming; and created training opportunities for staff on diversity and inclusion. Still, we found that we needed a more comprehensive and participatory approach to equity and inclusive learning.

Thus, we embarked on the initiative, a key element of which has been the creation of small learning communities, called working groups, to provide space and time for dynamic engagement across difference. For the past two years, more than 100 students, faculty and staff met regularly as part of seven groups looking at different aspects of our college: 1) assessment, 2) pedagogy and curriculum, 3) community building through the arts, 4) relationships between the college and the surrounding community, 5) capacity building, 6) global perspectives and 7) summer program development. Working group members have intentionally reflected and been sensitive to the existing challenges of inclusion in each particular area. While some of the groups have taken conventional approaches, like conducting focus groups and surveys, they’ve also invited other forms of sharing, learning and collective analysis, such as storytelling and “World Cafés” in which students, administrators, staff and faculty have come together to listen, engage, brainstorm and envision collective goals and next steps.

These groups have supported and encouraged people to engage rather than suppress their differing backgrounds and perspectives, and to be attentive to power dynamics. The result: they have catalyzed transformative relationships between individuals and the institution.

Over the past two years, the working groups have spearheaded and galvanized new, concrete ways of making our campus truly more inclusive, such as new courses like Navigating New Places and Building Inclusive Communities. A new credit-bearing summer bridge program has helped incoming first-generation and lower-income students become more active participants in college life, bringing knowledge and experience from their home communities. Other new engagement efforts with the surrounding community have been enhancing the sense of belonging that those living in the city and county feel when they come to the campus.

The Engaged Pluralism Initiative has also stimulated a review of our college’s major priorities and planning as well as the creation of a biannual survey of the campus climate. And the Board of Trustees and alumnae/i association have held workshops on intergroup dialogue, bias awareness and engaged pluralism.

Harmony Through Dissonance

Several themes are emerging. First, we’ve recognized that representation on the campus of diverse students is just the beginning. To achieve greater inclusion, we need a more comprehensive approach that focuses on ongoing processes and continual conversation.

Second, conflict is inevitable, and while working through conflict can bring people together, if mishandled, it can result in greater isolation. Last, it is crucial to have legitimized spaces and routine practices in order to sustain inclusive practices.

This work has not been easy. Before finding moments of harmony, diverse groups continued to engage in cacophony and dissonance. But a primary feature of all working groups has been a commitment to learn from differences of opinion and tension. Within an atmosphere of trust, and an environment where engaged pluralism has been welcomed as an opportunity for collective learning and knowledge building, working groups have processed discord in ways that have been productive and generative.

One key practice is to encourage people who don’t often have a voice to participate fully in group deliberations and decisions. Consider, for example, a working group proposal that swiftly gained popularity among most members and even spread beyond the group. A soft-spoken student who had been in the group for most of the academic year was able to express her concerns. That occurred because the working groups’ practice was to encourage every member to share their perspective, with group members doing their best to set aside hierarchies related to their roles.

In this instance, the sophomore offered the sole dissenting opinion about a potential project. Based on the one student’s perspective, the working group decided to no longer assume that the project was a fait accompli. Moreover, the input from the student resulted in a shift in process for the working group, which decided to have all participants inhabit a space of dissent and explore the less popular point of view of every idea they put forth. Concretely, all were asked to play the devil’s advocate with their own concepts when presenting them. From that position, group members became less defensive and more curious about what it would mean to be opposed to the project they suggested.

All working group chairs have been encouraged to model the practice of creating community around -- rather than alienating -- the person who expresses an opposing view in order to more fully understand the dissenting perspective. The groups thus became prototypes for inclusive learning communities.

In nurturing dissent, however, conflicts did emerge. For example, the climate assessment working group, charged with conducting and processing the results of the climate survey, was challenged when differences of opinion arose throughout the institution about how widely to share the results. The disagreements outside the group split it, as students took one side and went outside the group to find advocates for their viewpoint. Meanwhile, other members of the working group believed the group itself -- without outside actors -- should resolve the disagreement. Although difficult feelings emerged, the co-chairs were able to reconvene the working group, relying on previous commitments to continuous conversation and inclusion. Within a few meetings, the group had worked out their differences and were able to come to a position everyone could support.

A most meaningful lesson has been in learning how to shift the educational culture of the institution from a transactional to a more relational and transformative one. We came to understand that in many routine exchanges, especially between students and employees, various offices often served students from the perspective of a single function, or silo. Similarly in the classroom experience, the faculty member was historically positioned as the expert sharing knowledge and practices of a field with the students. While hierarchy is still present in working groups, they have provided a stark contrast: they include people from a variety of positions and backgrounds, committed to a process that has focused on sustained conversations and meaningful relationships.

We have also observed that working groups, as small learning communities that are focused on inclusion, can become spaces for dynamic engagement. Specifically, they can provide places for institutional learning about how standard practices and policies are experienced in everyday life. They can also be sites where people’s questions, perspectives and curiosities can be nurtured and collectively explored.

Ambidextrous Leadership

The literature is replete with discussions of organizational designs that allow institutions to balance opposing internal forces -- to fully exploit current routines of institutional practices, for example, while also exploring new directions. In many ways, our initiative has generated an ongoing tension between itself -- as an innovating mechanism of inclusion work -- and the historical structures that have assured our institution’s longevity. It is challenging our college to learn about “ambidextrous leadership,” in which opposing forces are actively engaged rather than suppressed. Although tensions continue to wax and wane, the initiative has fostered greater capacity for exploring new ways of working while also maintaining institutional structures that are embedded in our shared experiences. Such a balance -- of both creating new while supporting existing structures -- has provided opportunities for both institutional change and resilience.

Several organizational features are helping us navigate the paradox of pursuing new ways of working while embracing extant structures. First, the Engaged Pluralism Initiative is well aligned with the mission and strategic interests of the college, particularly in light of evidence that a sense of belonging improves students’ confidence, learning and development of critical thinking skills. Second, the college’s senior leadership has fully endorsed the initiative, supporting targeted efforts to integrate programming so that institutional and initiative resources do not compete with, but rather reinforce, one another.

Last, as we learned in the working groups, engaging different and sometimes opposing forces leads inevitably to conflict. The leadership thus has committed to creating the time, space and sense of urgency to attend to conflicts between initiative and institutional structures, so that the college moves through the conflicts to deep learning on an institutional level, in parallel to what’s occurring at the working group level.

Most important has been the engagement of students, faculty and other employees who have seen how their time is benefiting themselves and campus community. Their encounters center not on transactions but around relationships, learning and social transformation -- the necessary steps toward establishing a more inclusive learning community.


Elizabeth H. Bradley is president, professor of political science and professor of science, technology and society at Vassar College. Candice M. Lowe Swift is associate professor of anthropology, Africana studies and international studies as well as special adviser to the college on inclusion and engaged pluralism.

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