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Private Higher Education
September 12, 2022

While Americans find it increasingly difficult to agree about anything, we agree about this: it is becoming harder and harder to get along. According to the 2018 Civility in America nationwide survey, 93% of Americans say that lack of civility is a major problem in the U.S.

College and university campuses are not immune to the problem. Indeed, they sometimes seem to be among the least open to respectful dialogue across lines of difference. As a result, according to a 2016 survey of American college freshmen, today’s college students are “the most politically polarized” of any group of incoming students in the last 50 years.

While it is important that institutions of higher education train students in their chosen fields of study, it is also critical that they assist them in learning how to engage across deep lines of difference.

“To prepare our future leaders for successful careers and active citizenship, colleges and universities must teach students how to grapple with opposing viewpoints and respond constructively,” said AVDF President and CEO Michael Murray. “As a result, we are pleased to see institutions beginning to implement campus-wide civil discourse programming that will lead to an authentic culture shift.”

To support these efforts, AVDF has funded several projects promoting civil discourse at colleges, with most grants being awarded to organizations working with institutions across the country.

Recently, AVDF approved multi-year grants to two individual institutions, Dickinson College and Providence College, committed to making a transformational change through curricular and co-curricular civil discourse programming. These two colleges are tackling the challenges of inserting civil discourse skills into campus life to create a climate of civility.

Like many other colleges, Dickinson has observed a concerning trend among its student body when it comes to engaging peers with divergent ideologies. College students are increasingly refusing to engage with people who have perspectives different than their own, and instead ostracize those who share views they find problematic.

“We believe that providing opportunities to practice civil discourse and creating a culture of civility offers a powerful response to the polarization we experience today. Through these programs we aim to address the urgent need on campuses, in communities, and in our collective democracy to nurture citizens capable of having constructive conversations across diverse perspectives,” said Neil Weissman, provost and dean at Dickinson College.

Dickinson will infuse civil discourse theory and practice into the instructional and academic culture on their campus. In doing so, Dickinson intends to foster broad institutional change while also preparing students for life after college.

The program specifically supports various faculty study groups that help professors to incorporate civil dialogue across all disciplines and within courses at all levels. During the study groups, faculty will be exposed to key resources on how to promote civil discourse, engage structured discussions, and receive feedback from colleagues about redesigning or creating new courses.

Some faculty members will be developing new first-year seminars focused on civil discourse. These courses will act as a gateway for incoming students to help them build foundational leadership skills they can use to have productive conversations across difference throughout the rest of their college career and beyond. Other faculty will re-design courses that will include civil discourse as a component. Dickinson plans to recruit teachers from all academic disciplines for these professional development groups which will demonstrate the value civil dialogue brings to all college majors.

In addition to faculty training and course development, Dickinson will support student leadership opportunities as part of civil dialogue education.

The College will develop an elective civil discourse class to provide students with the skillset needed to speak and write across differences. The course will allow students to dive into civil discourse theory and put that theory into practice on campus. Students who complete the elective course along with other interested students will be invited to participate in an immersive training program to become Civic Dialogue Facilitators.

These Facilitators will in turn design and moderate public events for the campus and surrounding community that model civil disagreement. The events will highlight the significance of civil community conversations.

Dickinson College will also invite nationally known leaders to attend some of the public events to model civil dialogue focusing on a variety of topics. Students who take the civil discourse elective will help select the speakers in collaboration with community stakeholders. The presenters will be invited to join students and faculty at class meetings or other small workgroup discussions.

Like Dickinson, Providence College saw a need when it came to helping its students engage in meaningful dialogue with those who think differently. Like many other institutions, Providence found that students were finding it increasingly difficult to engage meaningfully on difficult and divisive topics.

Providence will embed civil discourse into curricular and co-curricular life on campus by creating or revising more than 20 courses. The course modifications will be facilitated as part of a faculty learning community on civil discourse which will provide educators with ongoing professional development.

In addition, the College aims to develop a flagship civil discourse class at Providence. As at Dickinson, the course will provide students with a deeper understanding of civil dialogue theory and provide opportunities for practice.

“With support from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Providence College will continue to develop a culture of inclusion through civil discourse. We’ll create spaces for democratic engagement and constructive conversations across lines of difference, building on key evidence-based practices,” said Dr. Quincy Bevely, assistant vice president for institutional diversity at Providence College.

To create public spaces for civilized discussions, Providence will launch a Student Dialogue Fellows Program. As part of their training, student fellows will work with faculty mentors to implement in-person and online civil discourse events about controversial topics and disputed questions. These activities will take place on and off campus. Providence has established an off-campus civic space known as the Annex. The Student Dialogue Fellows will use the Annex to host community-based conversations and invite local leaders to participate in bridge-building activities.

Providence and Dickinson are two schools using institution-wide civil discourse approaches to create spaces for productive conversations among a diverse group of students. The civil discourse programming at each college will foster significant learning, character development, and skill building among both students and faculty.  Through these efforts, these colleges aim to provide models for other higher education institutions on how to successfully integrate civil dialogue teaching strategies into academic courses and campus life.

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