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Private Higher Education
May 31, 2023

While college and university campuses are expected to be marketplaces of ideas, recent research reveals that conversation and engagement across lines of difference remain a challenge for today’s students. The 2022 Campus Expression Survey found, for example, that 58.5% of students reported self-censoring when it comes to controversial topics. And although this number is marginally lower than the 60% who reported self-censoring in 2021, the number of students who feel uncomfortable discussing contentious subjects remains high. The survey also revealed the worrisome finding that students self-censor because they fear negative consequences from peers. As a result, changing the climate on campus will require more positive interactions between students who disagree with one another, while also addressing students’ belief that they will be judged by their peers for holding certain views.

Despite the fear of being judged by their peers, 90% of students agree there’s a need for college campuses to support an environment that fosters constructive dialogue. Bridging the Gap (BTG) is a program that brings together students from ideologically divergent colleges and universities so they can learn how to have respectful conversations about their differences, build relationships, and explore common ground. The program was recently profiled in the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) magazine Liberal Education.

AVDF has supported BTG with multiple grants since the organization was piloted in 2020. Since then, the BTG program has expanded to 44 campuses, and it is anticipated that 25 additional institutions will become BTG participants by the end of this year.

Program founder Simon Greer helped bring the BTG program under the umbrella of Interfaith America. As a result, Greer now leads the BTG track at Interfaith America’s annual leadership summit, held each summer in Chicago. In 2022, 55 students and administrators participated in the BTG track during the summit and learned how to adapt the program to their own campus needs. To continue the expansion of BTG, Interfaith America will distribute $50,000 in microgrants to summit participants so they can launch the program on their campuses.

The bridge-building program teaches essential constructive dialogue skills such as listening, storytelling, and curiosity to create “brave” spaces at higher education institutions where students feel empowered to share their own beliefs and learn more about the viewpoints of others. Students first practice these foundational civil discourse skills on their own school campus before engaging with students from the partner college or university. The program equips participants with the tools they need to have effective discussions about divisive topics with those who hold different beliefs than their own.

While the project has delivered positive outcomes for many participants, project leaders admit that the work has limitations that need to be overcome. The first is that students who agree to participate are already inclined to engage across lines of difference to some degree. The resulting self-selection means that those who most need such skill-building are perhaps not the ones receiving it. Second, the program has typically involved pairing Evangelical colleges and universities with progressive, secular institutions. BTG leaders would like to expand the range of pairings beyond institutions of these types. These challenges will be areas of focus for BTG in the coming years.

To read the full Bridging the Gap feature in the AAC&U magazine Liberal Education, click here.

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