Hard Conversations

By President Steven Poskanzer

Carleton is committed to enrolling and supporting a student body that reflects the vast diversity of human backgrounds, outlooks, and experiences. This choice rests on rock-solid intellectual and pedagogical foundations. Our students must understand, appreciate, and be skilled at navigating difference. They must embrace the benefits of interacting with individuals who bring alternative perspectives and live very different lives. Through such interactions, one’s understanding of the world becomes sharper and more nuanced. Put simply, valuing diversity is a hallmark of an excellent liberal arts education.

Both in the United States and around the globe, fractious debates are occurring about issues of race, class, gender, identity, privilege, and other political and cultural fault lines. These tensions leach into college and university communities like ours that are consciously constructed to be diverse, and that are societal bellwethers. Therefore, if we are to realize the educational benefits of diversity, we must address incipient or deep-seated tensions and work to build a strong and genuinely inclusive campus environment.

As part of this effort and under the guidance of Carolyn Livingston, vice president for student life, Carleton spent much of the past academic year holding a series of small-scale, candid conversations led by trained facilitators about key topics of concern to our community. Our students—as well as faculty and staff members—are struggling with issues of racism, Islamophobia, economic inequality, the nature of academic discourse, and more—and we wanted to engage with these matters as a community and deepen our understanding of them and of each other. Averaging 12 participants per conversation, 1,537 students and 283 faculty and staff members participated in at least one of 135 sessions.

We know we cannot quickly resolve all of these important concerns (especially those that spread far beyond our campus), but these conversations allow more of us to appreciate and to take on the hard work of dealing with prejudice and exclusion.

As a result of these dialogues, we developed a list of action items. We need to improve the physical and mental health of students; continue our work to address sexual misconduct, clarifying policies and processes and augmenting prevention efforts; address special challenges faced by low-income and first-generation students; forthrightly discuss and address racial inequality; and embrace free speech and civil discourse. We also intend to generate more opportunities to think carefully about our common bonds and the challenges of joining together in our pursuit of learning. There are several hurdles to overcome as this dialogue proceeds. The first is ignorance—even smart, well-intentioned people may not understand how the world looks to someone with a different mind-set or background. We also lack practice in engaging in these types of conversations. The old adage warns that one should never discuss money, politics, or religion in social settings—yet that’s exactly what these conversations are about! We must overcome any discomfort around these topics and learn how to discuss them in ways that are not threatening.

Fortunately, Carleton also has some important assets to draw from as we proceed with such discourse, including high levels of trust and goodwill among our students and within our faculty and staff, a broadly shared desire to be a caring and welcoming community, and—perhaps most crucial—the modesty and honesty to admit that we have serious work to do.

Our past and future conversations will generate powerful learning and growth, and, ultimately, result in a more inclusive campus and more successful students.

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