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Private Higher Education
June 28, 2024

In the wake of the Israel-Hamas War, higher education institutions across the country are under intense pressure to model and promote constructive dialogue across lines of difference and disagreement. Polarization and uncivil engagement at American colleges and universities were heightened before October 7, 2023, particularly among groups with differing political beliefs and religions. And unfortunately, these conditions have only deteriorated since the Hamas attack and Israel’s response. There have been hundreds of college and university protests, many erupting into violence and gaining national media attention.

The current climate of disrespectful discourse at higher education institutions has resulted in students and faculty self-censoring when it comes to discussing contentious subjects on campus for fear of negative backlash. As an example, a 2022 study by the Heterodox Academy (Hxa) found that 3 out of every 5 students reported reluctance to discuss controversial topics in the classroom such as religion, race, gender, sexual orientation and politics. There is evidence that faculty also feel uncomfortable sharing their beliefs and opinions on campus. A national 2022 survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) found that 72% of conservative faculty, 56% of moderate faculty, and 40% of liberal faculty fear the loss of their job or reputation due to their words being misconstrued.

To help address these challenges to civil discourse on campuses, AVDF has supported practitioner organizations working directly with students inside and outside the classroom, as well as supported efforts to train faculty and administrators on how to draw on evidence-based practices when drafting campus-wide policies and when developing and teaching courses.

While these approaches have resulted in significant successes, students engaging in civil discourse activities are often unaware of faculty on their campuses who are supportive of similar goals. As a result, AVDF recently awarded HxA a $180,000 grant to partner with BridgeUSA to foster collaboration between student groups and faculty on the same campus, both working to advance respectful dialogue concerning controversial issues.

HxA is a primarily faculty-oriented nonprofit organization dedicated to improving viewpoint diversity, free expression, and constructive discussion in higher education. BridgeUSA consists of students who champion respectful and productive engagement across difference.

“We believe a collaboration between HxA’s faculty-led Campus Communities and BridgeUSA’s student-led chapters on campuses will deliver an effective model for joint activities that showcase academic and respectful disagreement on a diversity of ideas and beliefs in service of civil coexistence in a democratic society,” said Michael Murray, AVDF President and CEO.

“This is an exciting opportunity for faculty, staff, and students to work together to hold impactful discussions on important and contentious topics,” said Martha McCaughey, Director of Member and Campus Engagement at Heterodox Academy. “At a time when dialogue across difference feels tense on campus, it’s more important than ever to model evidence-based arguments and constructive disagreement for improved knowledge and understanding.”

AVDF funding will allow for collaborative programming on campuses that have both HxA Communities and BridgeUSA chapters — currently, Boston University, Georgia State University, Louisiana State University, SUNY Cortland, University of Alabama, University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Colorado, Boulder, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, University of South Carolina, University of Virginia, University of Wyoming.

The HxA Campus Community Network, launched in 2023, currently has communities on 50 campuses across North America and the UK; and BridgeUSA has chapters on more than 60 campuses. With HxA launching its fourth cohort of Campus Communities later this summer, the number of campuses that could be eligible for programming support via this grant is likely to grow.

For more information about the collaborative civil discourse campus programming, click here.

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