Fighting Polarization and Creating Open Dialogue on Campus

The university setting is a place where students have the opportunity to learn and engage in critical thinking skills and to interact with people that they might not have otherwise encountered. Diverse experiences, thoughts, and opinions are brought to the classroom and to campus and students must gain competency in navigating these complex structures. 

Research indicates, however, that students are reluctant to discuss controversial topics and express their opinions on campus. Data from the most recent Campus Expression Survey indicate that as many as 60% of students actively avoid hot topics such as politics, religion, race, sexual orientation, and gender. 

Students expressed that they did not believe their campus supported an environment where constructive disagreement could take place, with 63% of students reporting that campus climate prevents them from speaking up about their beliefs. Moreover, nearly 90% of students agree that colleges should encourage students and professors to interact respectfully with people whose beliefs differ from their own.

With drastic political polarization in recent years and student reluctance in mind, what can leaders in the field do to support a safe and respectful campus environment where all students feel comfortable sharing their opinions? 

In response, the Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI) developed an online educational program called Perspectives to equip students with practical skills for navigating conversations across differences. The project recognizes the obligation of higher education institutions to prepare the next generation for civic responsibility and to encourage productive dialogue surrounding important social issues. 

The research study included 755 college students from three different colleges across the U.S., and results indicate that a concise online learning program reduces polarization among students, improves their ability to think more openly, and enhances their conflict resolution skills.

The Perspectives program aims to instill psychological concepts to facilitate openness to diverse perspectives. Participating in the program also equips students with the mindset and skill set to engage in productive conversations. After completing the program, one student commented, “[I learned] how to better understand and appreciate others despite our differences. I also found that we are more alike than we are different when it comes to social and political issues.”

The study found that students who completed the Perspectives program showed significant improvements when compared to the control group. Key findings include:

  • 73% of students showed a decrease in polarization; 
  • 51% of students were better able to recognize the limits of their knowledge; 
  • 59% of students showed less negative attacking behaviors during conflict; and 
  • 55% of students showed a decrease in negative evading behaviors during conflict.

"At a time when polarization is at an all-time high and Americans are losing faith in our democracy, these results are extremely encouraging," said Caroline Mehl, co-founder and executive director of the Constructive Dialogue Institute. "We believe Perspectives can have a profound impact on improving discourse in classrooms across the country and preparing the next generation for democratic citizenship."

Leaders in higher education must proactively take steps to facilitate understanding across student differences, create classroom environments that support constructive conversations, and provide students with the necessary skills to engage with their diverse environment. Implementing a program such as Perspectives into First Year seminars, for instance, is an example of how higher education institutions can take action to create an open and respectful campus environment where students feel safe to share their beliefs.