Dialogue, Free Speech, Higher Education

No Time for Silence

It is Monday, Oct. 29, 2018.  We are awash in the news of pipe bombs and massacres, apparently motivated by old hatreds – anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-liberal media.  We are once again stunned that this is occurring in the United States.  Last night, I attended a political campaign event that began with a moment of silence to honor the victims at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  As I bowed my head, I could not help but think, this is no time for silence.

As Provost of a public university, I am keenly aware of the diversity of beliefs among my students and faculty. Despite the popular notion that education is full of left-leaning liberal elites, WCSU is a clear reflection of its community, with a broad range of ideas and ideals. Our students and faculty are democrat, republican, independent and unaffiliated; we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Atheist; we are pro- and anti-union, we are environmentalists, inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs.   In every classroom, at every meeting, in every club, there is the potential for differences of opinion.

I work to celebrate and honor these differences every day, working hard to try to understand the perspectives of people with whom I disagree. It is an important part of my role as Provost and it is who I am. Yet, I am not certain that as a university, we are adequately cultivating the tools for discussion that this diversity requires. We list dialogue as one of our central values, boldly stating that, “We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.” But how are we bringing this to life?

I know we are cultivating dialogue in some courses and at occasional events.  Much of our curriculum is devoted to the development of good arguments, but are we digging in and addressing the foundations of conflicting positions? Are we examining alternative hypotheses and helping our students understand that one counter finding does not necessarily undermine the underlying theory (except when it does)? Are we asking ourselves to consider the possibility that our arguments are based on faulty assumptions, often rooted in deeply held cultural biases? Are we able to take on tough questions in our classrooms with honesty, integrity, and respect, making room for the most controversial opinions to be heard and addressed fairly? Are we willing to be wrong?

I fear that the answer to all of these questions is simply, not often enough.

As we move through the week ahead, I am asking myself, How can we do more to foster that dialogue? Is there more room in our curriculum? Can we make that room? How can we make dialogue a habitual behavior, instead of something addressed in special events and then left at the doorway of that event, not to be revisited the next day, or the day after that? What can we do to make students, faculty, and staff all feel comfortable in our diversity of opinions and experiences, so that we don’t hide dissent in social media, but bring it to light for all to see and discuss? How do we create a culture that does not marginalize dissent, but views it as important next questions to be considered?

I don’t know what the next steps should be.  I do know that silence is not the answer.


Education is Complicated

Welcome to my new blog.  In this space I will explore and explain the complexities of supporting a vibrant learning environment that meets the needs of a wonderfully diverse student body. Western Connecticut State University is a public university with a long history of providing students with quality education that supports paths to careers, informed citizenry, and engagement with the “great conversations” that spring from the entire history of teaching and learning.

Like many public universities, we started as a Normal School, preparing future teachers to educate Connecticut citizens. Over the 115 years of our existence, we’ve moved from serving a small number of women, to more than 5,000 students from varied educational and cultural backgrounds, each looking for a path to a bright future.  Our blend of liberal arts and pre-professional programs serve to educate students, not just for a first career, but for a whole life.  Jobs change, interests change, opportunities and life circumstances change, but a strong education that weaves together critical thinking, communication, and cultural knowledge will help all of our graduates embrace change and thrive.

Educating students for productive and rewarding lives is our goal.  Achieving that goal is complicated.

There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to education (or clothing!) Our students don’t all start with the same preparation or assumptions about what education should do for them. We work hard to adjust opportunities and offerings so that they meet the needs of the high school valedictorian, the veteran returning from active duty, the student who may not have thrived in high school, but is now ready to stretch, or the adult ready for an advanced degree, but juggling work and family. We want them all to succeed and continuously ask ourselves the question, “What else can we do to help?”

I look forward to exploring some of the answers to the questions: What else? What next? How can we create a truly responsive learning environment? WCSU aspires to be the very best at meeting the needs of all our students.  This is the story of our efforts.

One of the top priorities in meeting students’ needs includes having outstanding faculty members. Twice a year we showcase the caliber of WCSU faculty and their ongoing research. Won’t you join us for this semester’s reception and panel discussion, Scholars in Action: The Interactive Art & Science of Pedagogy on Wednesday, Oct. 24 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Please RSVP to cunninghamj@wcsu.edu. We look forward to seeing you.