Polarization shows up on campus through clashes over the boundaries of speech on issues such as racial equality, immigration, climate change or the relationship between gender and sex. Universities in the USA and other democratic countries (Canada, the Netherlands, the UK and others) are pulled into a polarized public sphere via laws that aim to restrict their autonomy (such as the Higher Education Act in the UK and numerous state laws in the USA), through widespread disinformation that reduces public trust in research and through polarization of their own faculty members and students1.
To depolarize, colleges need not search for a middle ground. Rather, they should cultivate common ground through a shared search for knowledge rooted in evidence.
The work of universities and the health of higher education depend on reversing the democratic backsliding that polarization breeds2. Faculty members and other higher education professionals can do their part by providing students with opportunities to be informed and engaged, rather than suspicious and detached.
Polarization and universities
Affective polarization is characterized by distrust and negative views about those on the other side, beyond policy disagreements2. This can be seen in the US context, where members of the two opposing political parties increasingly see the others as close-minded, unintelligent and acting in bad faith.
Both forms of polarization (particularly the latter) have reached our universities, and affect our teaching and other activities5.
The wrong word can cause offence or anger. Discussions are stifled as participants hesitate to share their views. Protests erupt. Partly, this is because colleges are among the most diverse contexts the young people encounter, and ones where open inquiry is most respected.
Colleges provide opportunities for the shared pursuit of common goals, through academic or extracurricular group activities. Hence, university leaders and faculty members are uniquely positioned to foster depolarization among students. Table 1 summarizes forms of institutional polarization, and what university leaders and faculty members can do to combat them.
What university leaders can do
Meet students where they are
Many students who enter college are inexperienced with expressing their evolving views. University leaders and administrators should set up opportunities for students to learn the value of engaging across differences. They can:
- Run general education classes, new student orientation activities and writing seminars for all students when they start to prepare students for how different views are expressed and discussed in the university environment6.
- Encourage students in residential colleges to share a room with randomly assigned housemates as a way for them to connect with diverse others (though they should have the choice to opt out in especially difficult cases)7.
- Provide residence-based activities that give students opportunities to learn with and about each other in a friendly context.
Cultivate viewpoint diversity and connections
Encountering diverse views happens naturally on some campuses and needs to be cultivated in others. To create a welcoming environment for diverse views, university leaders should:
- Always allow dissent and protest within clear boundaries.
- Support and provide guidance for clubs (cultural societies, activist groups and so on) to help students to expand their network and pursue shared projects.
- Support connections across groups who align with opposing views — for example, by funding shared dinners or events for clubs on campus, community groups, or other universities. This can help to create new ties, recognize common interests or values, and reduce ideological animosity8.
- Consider setting up dedicated centres or programmes that facilitate dialogue across difference. Many organizations that do this already exist in the USA, where they offer courses that explore differences and bridge them; host events that are connected to these courses and train faculty members in facilitating these efforts; coordinate outreach opportunities that have students work with the local community to foster exposure to diverse views outside of the university; and connect events and speakers to courses, clubs or other reflective contexts by providing credit or funding for additional discussion of the event.
Support faculty members who are working to depolarize
As campuses become flashpoints of polarization and media attention, university leaders should resist the quick and easy step of firing or pushing out faculty members who face public pressure. Faculty members carry much of the work of depolarization and they need training and support. University leaders should:
- Protect instructors who act in good faith within their roles to support depolarization, even when this work turns contentious. This benefits students and the campus.
- Help faculty members to learn from each other in workshops or faculty meetings where contentious issues can be shared and resolved together.
- Provide guidance around issues that affect the campus (from pronoun usage to voting drives) while leaving room for dissent.
Support institutional autonomy and shared governance
To provide productive contexts for depolarization, universities need to maintain their professional autonomy about personnel and curricular matters. This is difficult to accomplish when ideological campaigns aim to replace the professional judgment of leaders and instructors with that of politicians. Taking a stand for institutional and professional autonomy, and against political pressure, is vital.
What faculty members can do
Set norms and boundaries with students
Faculty members should openly develop shared norms and discuss the boundaries of acceptable expression, ideally in the first class with that set of students. I recommend asking questions of students to co-create classroom norms and setting clear boundaries (Table 2). For example, a faculty member may introduce a boundary of excluding personal and identity-based attacks in class. This can help students to develop tolerance and understanding towards their peers, even those with whom they disagree.
There are certainly topics that should not be a part of a classroom discussion. However, when a student voices an unfounded or offensive view, it is best to engage them. For example, a student may raise the misperception that people living in poverty do not care about the education of their children. The professor can note that this is unsupported by research, and ask all students to consider the source of this view and who it serves, as well as some productive counterarguments. This process models dialogue to students and invites them to participate and to learn more about their own positions and reasons.
In all discussions, faculty members should model an open mind, the ability to be persuaded and empathetic listening. Faculty members must also be ready to admit mistakes. They may wish to go back to contentious moments in the next class and say ‘this matter stayed with me. Let’s revisit your comments from last week. Can you help me to understand?’
Talk about difficult topics
Uncomfortable topics are part of the syllabus for some courses: for example, American history professors regularly discuss slavery. But in any discipline, students might bring up controversies. For example, students in an astronomy class may dispute the use of a telescope built on Indigenous lands or a meteorology student may question whether climatic change can be attributed to human actions.
In either case, brushing the issue aside without giving students the opportunity for discussion could cause increased polarization and distrust.
Faculty members should address hard topics (without sabotaging the lesson). To do this, they can include relevant hard topics on the syllabus; welcome such topics into class discussion when students bring them up; and in cases of polarized disagreement between students, devote a few minutes to assessing the nature of the disagreement, differences in knowledge and values, and possible common ground.
Choose the goal
When discussing a contentious topic or making time for diverse views, be clear about the goal: whether one intends to foster familiarity with diverse views or to persuade students of a particular view. This will depend on whether the question is open or closed.
An open question is one about which reasonable people can disagree, such as climate mitigation policies9. For such questions, faculty members should elicit, welcome and rely on diverse views — ones that people in class hold as well as views held by others.
A closed question is one that has one correct answer or set of answers — for example, human-caused climate change. Faculty members should be clear about the facts, but remain open to other views (especially if they are represented in class or in broader society). Asking a student ‘why do you hold this view or belief? What does that mean for you?’ can help all students to become familiar with these positions as well as their limitations.
In some cases, it is hard to conclude whether a question is open or closed, as controversies can arise about evidence. For example, in discussing abortion, matters of religion and morality (doctrine, virtues or rights) and science (‘when does life begin?’) can cause tension. In medical school, faculty members should treat these as closed questions because the goal of the discussion should be to communicate best practice for medical practitioners. However, in a political science class, the aim should be to ensure exposure to the reasons behind different positions.
Engage students in constructive dialogue
Exposing students to information or diverse views is not enough. Faculty members across disciplines should provide opportunities for students to understand where other people stand and to learn about their reasons for holding the views they hold10. For example, faculty members can:
- Ask students to share their views in groups, craft the best counterargument they can think of and respond to it together.
- Have students serve as ‘expert witnesses’ in a discussion of a hard issue.
- In a public health class, ask students to debate the diverse reasons that people oppose vaccines and to address their arguments.
- In a Western civilization course, ask students to explore differences in views about history and culture that are best explored openly.
- In a discussion of Israel–Palestine, clarify that the goal is not to agree on a solution — many good minds have failed so far — but to understand the conflicting narratives and positions, with empathy and humanity.
Finding common ground
Depolarization in college is not a matter of directing students towards a middle ground between extreme positions. Rather it is an ongoing process of finding common ground: learning about what we share and what we already know, identifying issues we want to learn more about, and doing so together. This process can help to build trust and the capacity for cooperation, both of which are necessary for self-governance and democratic sustainability.
Universities depolarize by providing students with opportunities to expand their knowledge alongside people from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. This process can build trust in others’ humanity and good will, and establish a clear understanding of what makes information reliable. Bridging knowledge and social divides is a core aspect of depolarization that universities can and should take on, for their own and their students’ benefit and to advance democracy and the public good.