Editor’s Note: The column originally appeared in The Catalyst on Sept. 19, 2019
By Bill Woodson
Imagine a New College where the experiences and identities we bring to the table are truly welcomed. Where our collective commonalities as fellow members of a rich learning community are more important than our differences. Where our commitment to each other’s well-being and sense of belonging is more important than the political or social disputes that may at times divide us.
The ability to encounter and challenge a different point of view while remaining respectful of the person who holds it is not a capacity for which our community is known. Indeed, the ferocity with which a New College community member responds to an opposing point of view is often applauded, even when it becomes a personal confrontation. Even when a dialog, where ideas or positions are engaged and challenged with facts, logic, or values, might have yielded more satisfying fruit.
Why does this matter?
It’s possible for me to challenge your argument without challenging your humanity or disparaging your character. College should be a rich intersection of new insights and alternative perspectives that expand the horizons of those who see the pursuit of knowledge and acquisition of critical thinking skills as essential to the realization of their dreams and aspirations. But when we attack each other’s right to hold an opposing view, we narrow the discourse, rather than expand our knowledge.
My aspiration for the student experience of New College is that this is a place where we are all exposed to new and different ideas. That our students graduate, not only with first-hand knowledge of contrary points of view, but with an enhanced ability to engage and challenge those points of view, while remaining in relationship, even in fellowship, with people whose opinions conflict.
Sounds radical? Imagine extending that capacity, modeling that ability to disagree vigorously yet respectfully, amongst our faculty and staff as well. Imagine a college community that is not only larger, but more diverse, more inclusive, and more stimulating as a learning community. Imagine the ability to live, work, and learn together, even though we have different religious beliefs, different political beliefs, different life experiences, different abilities, different identities and different values.
Building a capacity for radical empathy could help us realize this ideal. Radical empathy requires that we know enough about a person to understand not only the “what” of their point-of-view, but how they arrived at it. Mind you, understanding doesn’t preclude disagreement.
The recently renamed and revitalized Committee on Campus Climate and Culture, which the 4C Committee has asked me to chair, will be welcoming new representatives, building on the contributions that Cabrini Austin, professor Uzi Baram, Sheila Foley, and Duane Khan made last school year. The 4C has offered the community a summary of mental health support resources, weighed in on the campus diversity statements found in syllabi and on the web site, and provided a calendar of religious holidays.
After a review of findings from the 2016 and 2017 climate surveys, validated by listening sessions conducted by myself and Dr. O’Shea, the deliberations of the 4C, and research conducted by Novo summer research assistant Leah Bender under my guidance, a clear path forward and a focus for the coming year and beyond has emerged. Along with our new assistant vice president for human resources, Loretta Shields, I have recommended, and the president has approved, a campuswide climate initiative.
In the coming weeks, you may encounter outside experts on our campus, consultants with expertise in campus climate and inclusive practices. They are being engaged as part of our desire to both accelerate and sharpen our focus on building a more inclusive community, one that is better able to sustain and engage, rather than suppress, differences in opinions and perspectives. President O’Shea and myself will also be holding multiple town halls in various locations (to be announced) to hear and respond to questions you may have about the initiative.
I believe this is a vision that we can all share. A New College that is both more inclusive, and more skillful in navigating and learning from diverse perspectives. A college community that is — dare I say it? — more kind.
Imagine it with me. Together.
And stay tuned, there’s more to come.
— Dr. Bill Woodson is chief diversity officer and dean of outreach at New College of Florida.