Collision of Good Intentions.... a little campus friction warms the soul -- a lot of campus friction chills the heart! by Thomas Flanagan
..... a little campus friction warms the soul -- a lot of campus friction chills the heart!
Universities, as microcosms of our ideal communities, are environments for productively bringing together contrasting ideas. Not all academics see it this way. Some see the university's first mission as a boot camp for advanced training. Disagreements even at this elevated academic level provide fuel for creative tensions - between pure and applied sciences; between mechanical reductionism and organic synthesis; between creative expression and rigorous recital. The administrative challenge is to control the temperature of the learning culture . to foster the warmth of engaged interaction while avoiding the heat of entrenched conflict. This has become an increasingly formidable administrative challenge. But why is this happening? One possible view is that we are institutionalizing our inquiry processes as a manifestation of a bureaucratic organizational structure. But this statement must be unpacked to be understood.
Modern universities are corporations with division of services so common to all other large corporations. We see centers, offices, institutes, programs, groups, departments, colleges and even sister campuses. Each unit seeks to optimize its own functionality, with the illusion that a
collectively optimizing tide will float all ships. This doesn't work. Suboptimal functions of individual units of a system sometimes may be the only way to assure optimal function of the system as a whole. Making this adjustment is difficult at both personal and institutional levels. In a competitive academic environment it is counterintuitive to be less than our competitive best. Institutional offices that elect to forego a moment of opportunity may not ever see that opportunity again. In our hearts we feel that knowing when, where, and how to give a little means a lot. And it is through our hearts that we are bound to each other. Our impulse to confront and our compassion for accommodation must find their balance point.
One particular view related to free speech at college campuses has been gathering attention. This view assert that today a radical and belligerent political left has emerged: students are poised to respond to policy objections from academics as political flash points. Administrators seeking to engage protestors through uncertain deliberative processes (on one hand felt as symbolic) or to disarm protestors with threats of academic suspension or arrest or pepper spray (on the other hand felt as real) may serve only to intensify friction. And yet it would not be fair to call the times unprecedented. The current moment in student activism, administrative intervention, or college self-reflection isn't really new. It emerged previously on campuses in concert with conflicted community support for waging war in Southeast Asia. Is it an external conflicted community perception about environmental and economic sustainability that is bringing tinder to the campuses?
While the source of friction is important, the more pressing issue for colleges is the unmet need for social technology that can compassionately manage or preempt emerging conflict. Without appropriate tools many administrators are saddled with the role of observing the infighting of sometimes surprising contests among operating units. Traditional peacemaking through advocacy and negotiation may apply bandages to wounds. But it is the complexity of the growing civic urgency that keeps all of the walking wounded marching forward into the uncertain future.
In the tradition of most bureaucracies, college administrators generally bring disputing parties into an often closed-door mediation session where leaders from different conflicted units are encourage to hash their differences out. This model of conflict management works when leaders of institutional units are involved but doesn't serve conflict resolution when students' voices are involved yet under-represented. How within the campus deliberation will the voice of the students be authentically represented? How will student interests and matters of concern be held at the same level
of importance as administrative offices? How will an emerging student narrative find its coherent voice in response to issues impacting the campus? To say that students have representatives within campus councils is certainly fair, but also frequently irrelevant. All citizens have representatives speaking for them within the United States Congress, and yet many citizens feel disconnected from this channel to the top. Can our leading universities develop new models to address the gap between the citizen and the government?
There is hope on the horizon when we see the elevation of a pluralistic social science research agenda in agencies from the NSF to DARPA. This pluralism, though, if it is to succeed, will not be a comparison of existing theories, but rather a reassessment and recombination of primary observations into higher orders of understanding. The first laboratories where this new science can establish itself are likely to be the college campuses themselves. A campus-wide disagreement is a catalyst to innovative approaches to resolving dispute . once the impulse to apply fiat, arbitration or even litigation yield ground. At this moment our meta-argument is whether we are ready to believe that the task is possible or whether it is even worthy of our efforts at all.
Yale University is unarguably among one of the most prestigious learning environments in the United States of America. It is for this reason that attention is duly drawn to the university's approach for managing the energy among conflicting perspectives. For example, what level of individual liberty should students hold when, as Yale University students, they publicly celebrate the evolving American holiday of Halloween? The fact that this might become a source of cultural heat originates in an institutional structure - an Intercultural Affairs Committee - which promulgates policy intended to shape and protect the brand of student identity. This is understandably a formidable task, and one that might be happily delegated into a committee rather that held by a specifically accountable senior
administrative Dean. Issuing edicts prescribing personal behaviors beyond compliance with a university code of ethics is rife with frictions. Tinder is carried to this flame when reflective voices in the university challenge the committee's edicts. The fact that an edict is challenged is not really materially relevant; however the basis for the challenge and the response to the challenge is acutely telling of the larger university culture.
It doesn't matter so much as to whether an intercultural affairs committee gets its position "right" or "wrong" at any specific instance. Errors are possible, and with sufficient time, inevitable. What matters is how operating institutions within a university interact with each other when ideas collide. Does a specific unit assert its exemption from critique due to a claim to its leadership legitimacy by fiat? Is that leadership legitimacy anchored to the unit's anointed office, its effectively reasoned position, its reflection of the will of the governed, or some other power? The way that legitimacy challenges among operating units are resolved or are not resolved reflects directly upon the institutions administration, and time for initiating resolution is of the essence. Yale University experienced this when external entities began to weigh in on their situation, rising to the visibility of National Public Radio. How does an incident that could easily be a healthy internal, heated-learning experience kindle into a conflagration of national and international note? And more pointedly, when things get this hot, what can be done? The answer to this question is relevant to the evolution of our communities, our states, our nations, and our planet, so it is only natural that we might turn to learning institutions such as Yale University for experiential wisdom.
Stepping back into history to reach for a broader perspective on the situation, we are engaged in a drama of ancient origin. In the past, art -- at least as much as science -- provided us with relief. Greek tragedy and the history of Western art grew out of the ritual recital of epic poems that took place during the Dionysian festivals of ancient Greece. F. Nietzsche wrote that the "transcendent experience of art pulled man from the clutches of nihilism" and that the Dionysian transformation, while disruptive to ego-consciousness, is the means for resolving the existential paradox. It can be a soul wrenching passage. In Greek, mimesis refers to "the primary dramatic phenomenon [of] projecting oneself outside oneself and then acting as though one had really entered another body." If compassionately guided through its course, the voyage is thus both a small death of oneself and a
corresponding rebirth of oneness. Do we stifle such an emotional experience in deference to traditions of sterile scholarship? We could choose to feel for the emotional energy fueling both sides of the script - in the case of a Halloween dress code, the desire to preserve a durable collective identity and the desire to express a transient identity that is individual. Is there a code that could do both? Is there a capacity to explore the opportunity for creating such a code? Is there a need (moral, ethical, political) for creating such a code inclusively . which is to say through yet also beyond the confines of a committee? If such a code is to be inclusively designed, we must practice more than traditional like-minded deliberation and orchestrated tournaments of debate: we will need to build mastery in the practice of large group dialogic design.
As an exercise of ethics, it isn't appropriate to try and answer vexing questions for any organisation from outside of the organisation that is suffering the friction. The institutional response will reflect a moment in the evolution of the larger institutional culture. Trustees, alumnae, and academic affiliates will all have a stake in shaping the way that the institution will choose to respond. The heat might rise to flame, and the flames might need to die down before a productive re-engagement might begin. If the situation is seen as a symptom of something deep and essential to the well being of the organisation, then some intervention will most likely be initiated. There are sure to be multiple points for possible intervention. Historically the leader of the unit initiating the friction is sacrificed, yet history teaches us that this is seldom sufficient and often inappropriate. A deeper intervention would be directed at the process through which the precipitating incident emerged, and its claims for popular legitimacy. This is a level at which certain forms of dialogue did or did not effectively occur. Still deeper, the process through which input into the formulation of the precipitating incident was crafted may be challenged. Were appropriate voices engaged, where those voices really heard, and is evidence of the voiced input visible in the final product? These may include difficult dialogues balancing conformity and individuality; safety and freedom; collaboration and coercion; etc.
Fundamentally the issue comes down to "the right to challenge authority with questions." Theologically this is the Moses and Pharaoh contest - the contest between the emerging future and the present power. It is a juncture where the state of the art of dialogue and the science of reason must
converge. In an initiative that might surprise many, Pope Francis has issued a call for a new science of civic dialogue that can be called upon to grapple with our most vexing social problems. This is a call for a new way of thinking and deliberating - a way that differs from the approaches that we used when we created our many problems.
What greater hope can we hold than our hope for our universities to find a way to embrace deep inquiry beyond the stretch of formal curriculum? When will the art of telling merge with the science of asking to form a much needed new norm for civic dialogue? Within our souls we can sense the urgency for responding to this particular form of global warming. We must start by asking the right question. We must begin by re-framing our understandings. To do this we need to consider the observations that trigger our reactions and interpret them through discussions with those who see the world differently. It is counterintuitive, yet to see the world accurately we need to learn how to see it through each others' eyes.
Universities that seek to cultivate warmth and yet avoid heated conflict must establish and rely upon a newly imagined inquiry office, distinct from dispute resolution missions of ombudsmen and triage duties of crisis response units. We must depend upon our colleges to enable pluralistic approaches for helping all of their stakeholders discover sustainable common ground. If this is happening, it is not yet obvious from beyond the campus walls and would be much welcomed within our own communities.
Thomas Flanagan is a collaboration researcher who serves as President of the Board of the Institute for 21st Century Agoras, a non-profit research and education organization for promoting resolution of complex civic situations through systems science.