Getting to Shared Goals: Alternative Ways to Achieve Social Change on Campus

Throughout my nine years as president of Grinnell College, I have often been asked whether I have the opportunity to teach. I actually spend a significant part of my day teaching—just not in a classroom. Frequently, I find myself teaching and learning from our students outside of the classroom as part of the broader learning and engagement typical at residential liberal arts colleges. I try to meet regularly with the student government at Grinnell, for example, and these interactions have been among the most important and meaningful experiences of my presidency. Each meeting allows me to grow professionally and also to encourage academic and personal growth in our campus leaders.

Most of my interactions with students are effective. In some cases of student activism, though, the assumption that accomplishing goals and pushing the needle for social change can only occur through opposition results in wasted energy and unproductive work for all involved. This oppositional approach is not unique to campuses; we see this in the extreme polarization in our nation and in our divided government and its lack of bipartisanship. With the future leaders of the nation at our campuses, we must question the notion that opposition is the only option for problem solving and effecting change. While protest and opposition are appropriate in some situations, there are often other methods through which students can learn and engage as informed, passionate citizens of whatever community they belong to. In my experience, a cooperative approach is often the most effective form of student engagement. It is motivated by the desire to either work with those who already share common goals or by making a strong, evidence- and value-based case to convince organizations or individuals to become supporters.

A case study

Our institutions must be more creative about considering models of advocacy that are likely to result in teaching and learning on all sides. We should help students explore different viewpoints and get inside the mind of decision makers. At Grinnell, one way we are broadening all of our perspectives is through an approach that is analogous to the use of case studies in business schools or actors portraying patients in medical schools.

In fall 2017, Grinnell sponsored our own version of a “Fred Friendly Seminar” for a fictional campus incident that raised fundamental questions about the tension between inclusivity and free speech. “The Fred Friendly Seminars” were a series of discussions broadcast on PBS over a thirty-year period using the Socratic method to explore a case raising important societal issues.1 For our seminar, representatives from different areas of the campus community gathered on a stage and took on roles similar to their ones in real life. Participants included student government representatives, student activists, student newspaper staff members, the chair of the faculty, senior administrators (including myself, the academic dean, the dean of student life, and the head of security), the lead college legal counsel, the town police chief, a former editor of the Des Moines Register, and the president of the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. A law professor, who is also an alumna, led the dialogue. The exercise allowed students, faculty, staff, and community members to hear people in various roles explain the thinking, constraints, and goals that guided their responses to a fictitious bias-motivated situation.

In the fictitious incident, which the moderator described in opening the seminar, people in a car yelled racial epithets at a mixed-race student couple. Throughout the hourlong discussion, the panelists took turns sharing questions they had and described actions they would take in response to the incident. As part of the scenario, new information was presented that complicated the situation and could potentially alter responses or actions. The incident brought to light how challenging it can be to respond to these types of incidents—they can affect us both professionally and personally (and not necessarily in the same ways). They force us to address, sometimes simultaneously, issues of free speech and inclusivity, and they require a thoughtful, timely response when tensions are running high.

Conducting a “Fred Friendly Seminar” helped increase awareness of the ways in which tough situations can unfold and the plethora of issues they can raise. The simulation also deepened understanding of the different considerations that various campus community members have as they work to address an incident. The participants on stage, in playing their particular roles, helped the audience see how and why their approaches to the fictitious incident varied. We are not immune from the possibility of difficult events happening on campus nor from the challenges that can follow in their aftermath. The scenario allowed our campus community to confront complex questions about the best ways for the college to respond—from supporting students and others affected, to working with internal and/or external advocacy organizations in addressing such an incident.

The start of a conversation

When students engage in oppositional advocacy, the focus can shift from achieving a worthy goal to opposing entities or individuals—often institutions or presidents but also other campus leaders (for example, faculty members or trustees)—believed to be responsible for the problem. But an us-versus-them approach does not have to lead to the end of the conversation. Instead, it can be reframed to lead to a starting point for complex conversations and genuine opportunities for learning to happen for all involved.

At Grinnell, for instance, administrators and students worked to develop a cooperative approach to grapple with the issue of fossil fuel divestment. Initially, student activists occupied parts of the administrative building that houses my office to demand the removal of our endowment funds from investments in fossil fuel companies. Though I personally agreed with the students on the importance of addressing climate change issues and on the negative impact of fossil fuels, on an institutional level the issue wasn’t so simple. As a college president, it can be challenging to separate your personal identity from your institutional role. Thus, I represented the opposition to these students.

We eventually, however, reached a point of shared learning. Students voiced concerns that merited a broader, more transparent look at the ethical and environmental issues connected to fossil fuel divestment and climate change. Following a model established by the University of Denver, our board of trustees created a task force on fossil fuel divestment that was supported by a campus advisory group.2

Again, not everyone agreed with the task force’s recommendations or the board’s final decisions, but throughout the numerous convenings, presentations, and interviews, all members of the campus community were given

access to the information and the opportunity to learn more about the complexity of the divestment issue.3 The campus community heard numerous presentations from various campus stakeholders on the broader climate implications and the risks for the endowment and future Grinnellians. From discussions like these, we learn and gain context and empathy, and often we get confirmation that everyone around the table shares a lot of the same goals.

Thoughtful engagement

An exercise such as a “Fred Friendly Seminar” provides an opportunity to delve deeply into complex issues. We, as a community, can dissect a real-time response without the pressures and potential missteps of an actual incident. Everyone who participated in the seminar we held—whether they were playing a role on stage or listening in the audience—learned about how people in different positions approach a collective issue. The people on stage brought a range of perspectives and worked through an issue together with civility and respect. We hope that if and when our community encounters a problem like the one in that fictional case, we will be able to engage thoughtfully and effectively. We hope to hold more seminars to address other issues facing our campus community.

The higher education community is wrestling with many contentious issues, and unfortunately, when an incident occurs on our campuses, we don’t always acknowledge lessons learned or consider the different perspectives influencing the actions of parties involved. We must do more to encourage our students—and ourselves—to pivot away from oppositional framing and into cooperative engagement during challenging situations. This encourages all parties to be thoughtful, respectful, and empathetic in their responses. To keep the focus on correcting and fighting injustice rather than individuals, it is especially important to give our students more opportunities to practice a balanced approach to discourse as they become agents of change and our nation’s future leaders.

Notes

1. “About the Seminars,” Fred Friendly Seminars, accessed July 23, 2019, http://www.fredfriendly.org/about.

2. “Divestment Task Force–Board of Trustees,” University of Denver, accessed July 23, 2019, https://portfolio.du.edu/divestment/page/59248.

3. “Recommendations on Climate Impact, Sustainability, and Divestment,” Grinnell College, June 13, 2018, https://www.grinnell.edu/news/recommendations-climate-impact-sustainabil....


Raynard S. Kington is president of Grinnell College.

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