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Inviting Dialogue: Renewing the Deep Purposes of Higher Education (a report from Courtney Breese)

Here’s a report to the NCDD community from Courtney Breese, an NCDD member who is an up-and-coming leader in our field.  I asked Courtney to represent NCDD at a conference at Clark University on dialogue in higher ed a couple of weeks ago.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend a conference titled Inviting Dialogue: Renewing the Deep Purposes of Higher Education.  Organized by Sarah Buie, Director of the Difficult Dialogues Initiative at Clark University, and Dave Joseph, Vice-President of Programs at the Public Conversations Project, this small conference was attended by approximately 50 individuals from colleges and universities and professional dialogue practitioners from the Northeast Region.

I was invited to attend as a representative of NCDD (thanks, Sandy!) to provide people with information on the coalition and also to report back about my experience at this conference. From a quick browse through NCDD’s members, I think it’s a safe estimate that about 25 percent of conference attendees were members of the Coalition. However, in introducing myself and NCDD in conversations and workshops, it appears that many more of the people present were familiar with and supportive of  NCDD. Some pointed out that most of the people in the room were probably familiar with NCDD (or should have been). For those who weren’t familiar, I found a great deal of interest in the access to resources and other practitioners, researchers, and organizations that can be found through NCDD. Hopefully we will be adding some new members to our ranks in the days to come!

As a practitioner in the dialogue/deliberation and conflict resolution field with the Massachusetts Office of Dispute Resolution and Public Collaboration, an institute of the University of Massachusetts Boston, I was excited and curious to see what kind of dialogue work is being done on other college and university campuses, as our office continues to work to incorporate dialogue into the university curriculum. From integrating dialogue into curriculum, engaging faculty and staff in dialogue, to addressing larger issues of diversity, there is a lot going on in this region! Below is a brief recap of just some of the content of this conference.

Throughout the day and a half conference we heard from many inspiring speakers. Patricia Romney, President of Romney Associates and Visiting Associate Professor of Psychology at Mount Holyoke College, spoke to the roles of inequalities and power, and prompted us to discuss the challenges of “getting to we,” of shifting from dualities (us v. them) to multiplicities and multipartiality (“we”).

Diana Chapman Walsh, President Emerita of Wellesley College, shared her thoughts on the deep purposes of higher education. She spoke to the need for today’s liberal education to address the serious concerns of the 21st Century and asked, “Shouldn’t the academy be leading the way forward for democracy in this urgent time of need?” Her remarks concluded with a question to prompt conversation: If you could be part of an on-going conversation on campus about the deeper purposes of higher education, what questions would you want to take up, and how?

Later we heard from Elizabeth Coleman, President of Bennington College, who began by reminding us about the biology of the brain – that it is not hard-wired like a computer. She asked we to think about what kind of world we are /we should/ we could be making. She echoed the thoughts of Diana Chapman Walsh with an emphasis on building the issues we face today into curriculum, particularly the difficult, complex issues such as health care and economics, and to promote a culture of discussion.

Throughout the conference participants took part in small conversation cafes on various topics raised by the speakers. We discussed the challenges of getting to we, the role and culture of dialogue in higher education, and dialogue as action and transformation. Additionally, we had the opportunity to participate in workshops on dialogue models, campus subcultures of power, campus controversies, the goals of dialogue and deliberation, and other models for integrating dialogue on the college campus.

In the wrap-up both Sarah and Dave expressed their interest in creating a regional network to allow everyone to continue this examination of dialogue in higher education.

It was a lot to take in in such a short amount of time, but it was also refreshing to be surrounded by so many people working with dialogue in higher education, both in the classroom and in the local and campus communities.  As a former undergraduate who was exposed to dialogue and deliberation in the classroom and on the college campus, it is encouraging to see such a strong effort being made in the Northeast to further dialogue in higher education.

Courtney Breese

Program Coordinator
MA Office of Dispute Resolution & Public Collaboration (MODR)
UMass Boston | 100 Morrissey Blvd., M-1-627 | Boston, MA 02125
Tel: 617.287.4046 | Fax: 617.287.4049 | E-mail: Courtney.Breese@umb.edu
Website: www.umb.edu/modr and www.mass.gov/modr

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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