The Urgency of Understanding

These days, it’s impossible to miss the barrage of criticisms lobbed at higher education as intolerant of opposing viewpoints and at college students as precious snowflakes unwilling to engage with difference and unprepared for the world that awaits them. Frankly, there’s been too much fuel for that particular fire of late, as our colleagues on some other campuses have had to manage deep divides within their communities and some particularly ugly episodes of protest gone awry.

As I write this, we’re heading into commencement season, and I’m worried we’ll see more intolerance on campuses across the country, with calls to rescind invitations to controversial speakers and protests that disrupt ceremonies and silence voices. I hope that doesn’t come to pass, because it’s more important than ever that we in higher education recommit ourselves to the principles of academic freedom and self-expression, the quest for knowledge and truth, and the aim of developing global citizens who engage fully in building a just, free society.

In today’s polarized world, we have a particular opportunity — perhaps even a singular responsibility — to provide on our campuses the conditions for engaging across differences of background and ideology and to support students in their growth as individuals and as members of a diverse community. If we do our jobs well, the future is in good hands, indeed.

I see this as a central role of a college president in the 21st century. At Trinity College, we have a student body that comes from all over the world and from all backgrounds. We recently admitted a group of talented students for the Class of 2021 who come from 38 countries and 41 states and represent every part of the socioeconomic and political spectrum. But we must do more than simply bring together a diverse body of students. We must model the respectful engagement we want to see in our students, encourage their explorations of self and society, and make clear that they are responsible for building a community that’s inclusive and safe — not safe from speech or ideas that might offend or challenge, but rather safe for them.

Those principles are at the heart of why, for my first Commencement at Trinity in 2015, a retired Air Force brigadier general and former prisoner of war in Vietnam was awarded an honorary degree alongside a draft resister and renowned advocate for nonviolence. And, those principles are why, by the time you receive this magazine, we’ll have heard a Commencement speech from philosopher Daniel Dennett, one of the “Four Horsemen of Atheism,” with the statue of our founding president, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Brownell, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, nearby ’neath the elms. On such celebratory occasions, we can show our students that we value difference and dialogue.

I’m grateful for the work of Trinity students, faculty, and staff who’ve engaged in the Campaign for Community we launched two years ago. This student-led initiative seeks to build the community we wish to be, one characterized by respect, inclusion, and collaborative partnership. This spring, as part of that effort, we’re piloting an exciting workshop series for students called “Meaningful Discourse Across Difficult Boundaries,” in which students are learning how to listen and be heard, how to understand and engage productively with conflict, and how to relate across differences.

I believe these are among the most important lessons students can learn in their time in college. They are skills that will enable students to improve the world they’ll soon lead and, as Trinity’s mission states, that will prepare them to be bold, independent thinkers who lead transformative lives.

Watch a video of Berger-Sweeney addressing this topic on PBS NewsHour below.