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National Difficult Dialogues Movement Declaration

On October 12, 2012, the newly launched Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center (DDNRC) issued the National Difficult Dialogues Movement Declaration. The mission of the Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center (DDNRC) is to advance innovative practices in higher education that promote respectful, transformative dialogue on controversial topics and complex social issues, thereby reflecting a commitment to pluralism and academic freedom and strengthening a democratically engaged society.

National Difficult Dialogues Movement Declaration

We, the presidents, rectors, chancellors, and vice chancellors of universities from all across the U.S. are deeply troubled by the increasingly polarized and hostile nature of public discourse within our democracy. A growing intolerance for those with whom we differ, whether due to cultural, religious or ideological perspectives, has come to characterize much of our national conversation.

For many years, colleges and universities have experienced rising campus tensions, both inside and outside the classroom, as well as restrictions on academic freedom and the expression of controversial views by both students and faculty. Matters of identity—religious, ideological, racial/ethnic, social class, gender, sexual, disability, and national origin, among others—sometimes emerge in divisive and unpredictable ways. In the classroom, faculty and students often encounter the manifestations of conflict, particularly during discussions of topics that engender polarizing ideological positions. As a result, in 2005 the Ford Foundation, headed by Susan Beresford, and a group of distinguished current and past Presidents and Chancellors, including Derek Bok of Harvard University, Shirley Tilghman of Princeton, Judith Shapiro of Barnard College and David Ward of the American Council on Education called for the need to cultivate civility, and to address these “difficult dialogues.” Since then, a number of colleges and universities across the nation have developed projects, training sessions, courses, and workshops for students, faculty, and staff to have difficult conversations in safe and productive ways. These campus communities have had success “talking across difference” about controversial topics. Yet our world continues to be polarized in many ways. More than ever, the nation is in critical need of tools and capacities for engaging with differences in a constructive, healthy, and civil manner. Academic institutions have a major responsibility for preparing students and future leaders in these areas.

We recognize that the ability to participate in informed and respectful, intellectual, civic and political discourse is at the heart of a democracy; that academic freedom is at the core of a university’s mission; and that universities are among the key formative places where students can experience diverse perspectives and develop the skills to listen, empathize, engage, and productively work through differences. Yet, we also recognize that members of our academic communities are too infrequently provided intentional spaces to foster this growth. Instead, polarized conversations materialize that entrench positions and produce discord rather than meaningfully working through disagreements and illuminating similarities. As university leaders, we believe that developing and delivering programs that cultivate these fundamental skills and understandings—among students, faculty, staff and administrators—must become central to the work of our universities. Consistent with our charge to help shape each new generation of leaders, professionals, policy makers, and citizens, universities are uniquely positioned to advance our national dialogue toward one of respect, responsibility and mutuality.

We call on all college and university leaders to join us in ensuring that our campuses remain places where we protect freedom of expression, sustain academic freedom, promote pluralism, and expand opportunities for constructive communication across different perspectives. Teaching and learning about difficult dialogues must be an integral component of our educational missions. Furthermore, we call on our academic peers to initiate and support the mobilization of internal and external resources so that their institutions respond to this challenge.

We, therefore, agree to take the following actions:

1. Increase awareness of the need for respectful, transformative dialogue across differences, both on campus and beyond.
Support the development of both curricular and co-curricular offerings and programs in colleges to ensure that students have multiple opportunities to study, experience and value a pluralistic society, and to develop the capacity to take on leadership roles in discordant situations, while assuming a posture of civility and respect.

2. Create an institutional culture of pluralism and respect where faculty, administrative leaders, and staff model and promote these values.
Ensure that the faculty, administrative leaders, and staff of college and university campuses affirm the value of and model respectful transformative dialogue in their practices, institutional policies and ethos, and strategic efforts.

3. Foster development of critical thinking skills for constructive dialogue across differences.
Create programs to develop faculty’s ability to teach skills for informed and respectful dialogues to all undergraduate, graduate, and professional students.

4. Maintain the movement.
Assume responsibility for spearheading and continuing widespread involvement with this movement within the academy, by: (a) highlighting its importance at key academic gatherings; (b) bringing other colleagues to the table; and (c) allocating institutional and/or professional affiliation resources to support the movement’s activities.


Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center: Mission and Goals

The mission of the Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center (DDNRC) is to advance innovative practices in higher education that promote respectful, transformative dialogue on controversial topics and complex social issues, thereby reflecting a commitment to pluralism and academic freedom and strengthening a democratically engaged society.

DDNRC Goals

More than ever, the nation is in critical need of tools and capacities for engaging with differences in a productive, healthy, and civil manner. Academic institutions have a major responsibility for preparing students and future leaders in these areas. The Center seeks to foster constructive dialogue about some of society’s most contentious issues and social policies, including: race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, immigration, social class, the environment, and war and conflicts. Our overarching goal is to form a consortium of higher education institutions and national associations committed to the advancement of difficult dialogues teaching and learning. Ultimately, we hope to become the intellectual and operational nucleus of a national movement for difficult dialogues teaching and learning.

1. Build on national models that advance awareness and promote the practice of difficult dialogues approaches to teaching and learning.

2. Promote faculty and staff development programs that advance cultural pluralism, academic freedom, and engagement across differences, including faculty development training, advancement of research designed to assess the impact of difficult dialogues teaching and learning.

3. Engage students in opportunities that encourage the development of skills to promote civic engagement through dialogue on controversial topics and complex social issues.

4. Disseminate materials and information to a broad audience within higher education, through publications, workshops, conference presentations, institutes, and other appropriate venues.

Resource Link: www.difficultdialogues.org

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