A Co-Authored Interview
Carlos: Steve, now that you’ve retired as Associate Director of Residence Life at the University of Maryland, College Park, I would love to get your thoughts about the changing nature of student speech. In the twenty-five years that I worked with your department, I saw many changes.
Steve: You’re right. The two of us certainly had fun designing our Common Ground program back in the 1990s. That program would bring together diverse groups of students – sometimes more than a dozen – to discuss current equity dilemmas. A series of four, 90-minute dialogue sessions, all framed around a single provocative question. Should laws governing abortion be changed? Should universities use intentional methods to diversify their student populations? Rousing and illuminating conversations.
Carlos: Yes. And one of the unique things about those dialogues was who facilitated them.
Steve: That was a key to the program: all undergraduate students. PDLs: undergraduate peer dialogue leaders . We trained them to facilitate the dialogues so that every participant was able to express their insights.
Carlos: But it wasn’t just open discussion, was it? That program had a clear linear structure.
Steve: Right. Each session focused on a different question that provided a unique angle on the topic. What are the multiple dimensions of the issue? What are various options for action? Can the group reach consensus around one or more action options? What are the possible intended and unintended consequences of those options on which the group came to consensus?
Carlos: But coming up with an answer wasn’t the underlying purpose of the dialogues, was it?
Steve: Absolutely not. The focus was the dialogue process: help students learn the necessary skills and commitments to make dialogue successful. And this showed up in our assessments over the twenty-plus years of the program. More than 80 percent of the participants indicated that the program had made them more likely to discuss potentially divisive topics with others of differing identities.
Carlos: Steve, you’ve been observing students for decades. Has the tone of their conversations about diversity changed over the years?
Steve: It certainly has, particularly the way that students engage with each other. When our program began, students were more direct. They sometimes started out as adversaries. They would state their opinions, often strongly. They often pushed each others’ hot buttons. But they hung in there and learned how to deal with each other about controversial, sometimes emotional, diversity issues.
Carlos: And more recently?
Steve: Students seem far more reticent to engaging so directly and empathetically. At first glance this might seem good – students speaking with more care or dexterity. But facilitators say they wish conversations were more open and direct — the way they used to be.
Carlos: You mean, in the “good old days.”
Steve: Yes. Even if conversations started out heated – sometimes inflammatory — student facilitators felt confident that they could help participants engage the issues more constructively and develop greater mutual understanding. That’s what comes from careful program design and facilitator training. These days many students tread so cautiously that it can impede the progress of the dialogue.
Carlos: Based on your experience, where do you see diversity conversations heading in the next decade?
Steve: Undergraduates seem to be going too far with self-censorship. Some degree of self-restraint is fine. There is no substitute for courtesy. But too much fear of offending can inhibit honest conversations and relationships. Self-censorship of ideas damages the depth and success of student interactions. This seems to be particularly true when racial themes come up. Trying to avoid being accused of not being anti-racist can impede your ability to discuss vital issues surrounding race.
Carlos: Let’s wrap things up. What do you think has been the secret of Common Ground’s success?
Steve: Two secrets: diversity and stakes. Common Ground dialogue groups work because they involve a diverse group of participants: racially, ethnically, gender-wise, politically, religiously; or spiritually. And they work because of common stakes: participants invest in the issue they are discussing even when their positions strongly differ. This yin/yang of difference and similarity has always worked well with our design.
Carlos: I agree, Steve. Any crystal ball thoughts about the future?
Steve: If the current trend toward self-isolation in ideological silos and an unwillingness or inability to talk across difference continues, it bodes poorly for the future leadership of our nation. But Common Ground has shown that we need to continue investing in two things. Bringing together diverse groups to learn how to constructively discuss equity dilemmas. And developing leaders who can help build bridges of constructive conversations about complex diversity issues.