From the CEO: The College Union: A Soapbox for Campus Community

The other day I was sitting in on a Zoom meeting of some union directors who were sharing challenges and successes on their campuses, and how they had tried to navigate the complexities of life today. One common frustration expressed was the lack of reception by students and newer professionals to listen to differing opinions on controversial topics. The feeling was that the polarization that exists in our world, the idea that folks come from different unapproachable camps, has escalated to an alarming level. They expressed concern that some staff find it difficult, and are apt to push back, on supporting initiatives of students who express perspectives different from their own. A number of contributing factors were mentioned.

First, it was suggested that higher education and student affairs graduate programs have been moving toward social justice and identity development of the graduate student, with less emphasis on student development and the identity development of the students with whom they will advise or supervise. Another perspective shared was an example of a newer professional asking how they are to advise a student organization to bring a controversial speaker when the other person’s viewpoint threatens their very existence. The real challenge here can be just how to nurture and prepare staff for work with students of all political perspectives and opinions, and then to be accepting of them even when they differ philosophically at a foundational level. One solution, which I have previously mentioned, is the role of the college union to encourage active dialogue and to develop the skills sets for implementing an active dialogue design for communicating with one another.

So here I am, once again, feeling like I need to pull out a soapbox to emphasize the importance of active dialogue. Interestingly, the term “soapbox” alludes to the days when someone would elevate themselves by standing on a box or crate to make a public speech, often about a political subject. The college union can and should serve as a form of soapbox for the campus community, but not just for elevating the voices of speakers. That soapbox should also be used to elevate active and respectful listening. This is the ethos of why we exist, to support and encourage the exchange of ideas, which means conversation between more than one person. This is what distinguishes our profession.

We could simply operate as an auxiliary entity or provide activities to the campus, but I would suggest that our purpose as educators is much deeper. Let us not forget our founding on the principles of debate, or our purpose to provide ‘a place where all may meet on common ground’ as denoted when the first union building in the United States, Houston Hall, was built in 1896. I would suggest that today the term “common ground” also reflects the importance of developing a common language that can be used as a tool to examine things like racism. With a structure, or methodology, built on trust and respect there lies an opportunity to accept cultural perspectives that can lead to a better understanding of another’s values, concerns, and motivations.  

Last year the ACUI Board of Trustees established an Active Dialogue Working Group, tasked with defining active dialogue in a campus setting and highlighting best practices for implementing active dialogue initiatives. Conducting their work while a pandemic and instances of racial injustice unfolded, the task force noted that the time for examining concepts of identify, power, perception, interests, and interaction through active dialogue has never been more relevant or important. They suggested that active dialogue models that embody listening, acceptance, and honesty are the appropriate vehicles to engage students, staff, faculty, and associated communities in conversations and interactions about inclusivity, diversity, equity, racism, and other forces of divisiveness and polarization. They offered the following definition of active dialogue.

Active dialogue is a form or style of engagement that permits and invites individuals to create a culture of open communication by learning from one another, hearing each other’s perspectives, and being heard. Active dialogue does not strive to persuade, debate, or convince anyone of someone else’s positions, but rather to create a space for difficult discussions. It is an opportunity to reflect and speak deeply about your values while actively listening to others, allowing for the development of empathy and understanding. 

The intent of active dialogue is to move away from conversations that reinforce perceptions and assumptions, to conversations where participants can come to better understand another’s values, concerns, and motivations. It can be used where productive relationships are limited by stereotypes, polarization, and distrust; and when people need to build trust and respect before engaging in decision making, problem solving, or action planning.

The working group’s full report is available on the ACUI website, as well as resources to help professionals develop active dialogue initiatives. Here are some ideas and resources that resonated with me.

  • Historically, many student affairs professionals have incorporated active dialogue into routine leadership trainings. An example would be hosting small-group interactive circles during first-year orientation.
  • Skills that are at the heart of intellectual inquiry and active dialogue include respectful listening and speaking; the ability to analyze dissenting views without vilifying a speaker; conflict management; the ability to analyze, deliberate, and advocate for specific solutions; and an understanding of compromise and consensus-building processes.
  • Coalition-building and collaboration with third-party consultants that embrace and demonstrate the same values and principles of active dialogue can provide additional resources to advance the success and sustainability of campus active dialogue programs.
  • Consider creating an active dialogue committee which reflects representative entities such as professionals and students who are involved in policymaking, administration, and service delivery, in addition to peripheral communities.
  • Develop a marketing, communications, and outreach program that seeks to procure buy-in and support from internal and external communities by sharing how successful active dialogue programs reflect positively on the strategies, goals, and initiatives of the larger organization.
  • Examples of student-led programs that incorporate active dialogue include:
    • WeListen – a student organization focused on creating conversation over political divisions.
    • BridgeUSA – a national organization, with campus chapters, that promotes civil political discourse among college students from across the ideological spectrum.
    • Olive Tree Initiative – a student-based center for dialogue, conflict analysis, and resolution.

Overcoming the schism that exists across society is a heavy lift, and it will take strong effort from many different leaders and organizations to make substantial progress. We have an opportunity on our college campuses to shape the future, to encourage and teach students how to engage in active dialogue to lessen the current approach that takes only one side and closes off listening to multiple viewpoints. There is nothing wrong with being on opposite ends of the spectrum, but unless we are receptive to listening, we lose the opportunity to truly engage and work toward mutual understanding and constructive solutions. As college union and student activities professionals we have a responsibility to all students regardless of our personal values or beliefs, with active dialogue serving as a vehicle for educating students to broaden their mindset. We are well-positioned to meet this challenge head-on, to transform our campuses for critical thinking and dialogue to prevail over the sole dominate voice of the day.

* Thanks to the following ACUI members who served on the Active Dialogue Working Group:

Jeremy Davis, University of Wyoming

Simón Franco, University of Minnesota–Morris

David Israels-Swenson, University of Minnesota–Morris

Andrea Trevino, University of Houston

Steve Chaplin, ACUI Central Office