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Forget the shouting and demonizing: College students organize civil discussions

Sophomore Julia Pascale and junior Kyle Herbstreit discuss the death penalty at a bipartisan group meeting at the University of Michigan.
Sophomore Julia Pascale and junior Kyle Herbstreit discuss the death penalty at a bipartisan group meeting at the University of Michigan. (Laura Pappano/The Hechinger Report)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Tempers are flaring again over free speech. But while many people shout and tweet across the political divide, college students are organizing civil campus discussions — with both sides at the table.

In the wake of violent political protests on campuses, some students have stepped away from the fray to seek what’s been lacking: space for reasoned conversation, listening and middle ground. Their hunger for moderation comes with rules that emphasize facts, ban personal attacks and respect ideological opponents.

It begs two questions: Are we allowed to feel hopeful? And can we learn something?

These students are hardly “snowflakes.” They’re plunging into subjects such as prison reform, immigration, the government shutdown, teachers unions, universal health care, abortion, gun control and — depending where they are — agricultural subsidies.

“The expectation is that you come in and you are willing to hear anything people might say,” said Christina Laridaen, a senior who is the outreach coordinator for the Minnesota Bipartisan Issues Group at the University of Minnesota.

What started with six friends talking politics a few years ago now draws about 40 people every Thursday evening to Coffman Memorial Union for organized discussion on preselected topics. The group has a logo (donkey and elephant butts form a heart) and motto (“politics without the yelling”).

Although sessions attract “highly political people,” Laridaen said, they also demand “a recognition of other people’s humanity: ‘I have these values and they are important to me. And somebody has these other values and they are just as important to them.’ ”

The notion that people who disagree with you are not evil or ill-intentioned is at odds with the prevailing national climate. While campuses remain split and charged, there is also a growing quest for common ground.

Students are forming clubs, reviving old ones, launching bipartisan journals and organizing events. It’s happening across the country at campuses large and small, public and private — from Washington State University to Tufts University — and getting a boost from organizations such as BridgeUSA. It started in 2016 at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Colorado at Boulder. (The University of California at Berkeley chapter began after violent protests around a planned visit by far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos in 2017.) In the past year, the group has grown to 24 campuses.

“It’s about putting a face to the other side,” said Daniel Lewis, a junior with Tufts CIVIC. “It’s much harder to scream at someone in front of you than someone across the room or across the Web.”

Widener University President Julie E. Wollman, who began a Common Ground Initiative there in fall 2017 to lead regular conversations for students and faculty members, says people simply “want to find a better way.”

Some University of Michigan students seek that through rigorous balance. WeListen, a club started in 2017, has co-presidents — junior Kate Westa and sophomore Brett Zaslavsky — who are matched political opposites (her to the right, him to the left). The executive board is half conservative and half liberal, as is the six-member team that provides background research for each gathering.

Even the composition of discussion groups at events is balanced.

As 49 students entered Room 110 in Weiser Hall on a recent evening, they dropped their backpacks and, before grabbing slices of pizza, checked in on a laptop. There, they rated their political orientation overall, and then on the evening’s issue — the death penalty — by indicating where they fell on a spectrum from “immoral and should be illegal” to “ought to be used, especially for heinous crimes.”

A student-built algorithm then created a composite score for each attendee and sorted individuals into eight groups that optimized political and ideological diversity within each. Groups also had a secret “moderator,” trained in conflict resolution, to keep talk fair.

Before reporting to assigned tables, students received a fact sheet (for example, 30 states then had the death penalty; 11 of them had not used it in the past decade). They watched a presentation on the history of the death penalty.

Then came verbal guidelines. “People have good intentions and genuinely believe what they say,” Westa announced. Zaslavsky ticked off reminders — “be conscious of body language,” “no personal attacks,” “no googling facts.”

To set the stage for civility, conversations began with five minutes of nonpolitical chitchat. Then, Group 7 — which included a mix of class years, majors (history, mechanical engineering, chemistry) and home states (Michigan, Maryland, New Mexico) — dived into discussion. There was mention of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” Ted Bundy, Osama bin Laden and Hitler. They debated the death penalty’s purpose (deterrence or retribution?), considered the cost of chemicals for lethal injection, the mental health of death-row convicts, the risk of wrongful execution, the cost of life imprisonment vs. the death penalty — even whether death should be painful for those found guilty of heinous crimes.

Nothing was decided. But that’s the point. Bipartisan discussions are about letting go of “gotcha’s” and hearing others’ thoughts.

This tone attracts regulars such as Kyle Herbstreit, a junior. “As a conservative, it’s an open space to talk about and share my views,” he said. The Ann Arbor campus is liberal, he said, so “most of the time, you get shunned. That doesn’t happen here.”

It’s not entirely clear how or why the desire to share stances — rather than set fires or chant over opponents — is gaining traction nationally. Perhaps it is the byproduct of a generation that, unlike its predecessors, seeks to solve problems, not just join sides.

That distinction struck home with Jacob Heinen, a former vice president of the Washington State University College Republicans club. Although he once proudly spray-painted “Trump” on a wall that club members had built on campus, Heinen grew tired of what he saw as a focus on antagonizing others to get attention.

And when the president of his university’s College Republicans, James Allsup, surfaced at the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Heinen resigned from the club — and helped start the nonpartisan Political Science Club on campus.

“I felt there were more efficient ways to communicate conservative values,” said Heinen, a senior. “I want to engage people in honest conversation.”

The same goes for Andrew Solender, a junior at Vassar College. A Democrat who worked on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, Solender found the far-left antics around a visiting conservative Cornell University professor's talk polarizing, allowing no room for those deemed "not progressive enough." It led him and friends last spring to start the nonpartisan Vassar Political Review.

Sarah Wagner, graduate program coordinator in the psychology department at the University of Michigan, had attended We­Listen sessions as the only staffer among undergraduates before she organized a version for faculty and staff members. About 50 people meet at lunchtime every other month.

“Sometimes, you find that you have the same idea as someone else who is a far-right Republican,” said Wagner, who leans left.

And being forced to explain her views, Wagner said, has made her think more deeply about them. She has heard perspectives she would not otherwise encounter. During a conversation on mass incarceration, she said, “at my table we had six people and four had immediate family members who had been in and out of prison throughout their lives.”

WeListen co-presidents Westa and Zaslavsky said participating has changed their perceptions. Before, Westa said, she saw liberals as opponents who forced “a lot of abrasive conversations” whenever she set up a table on campus to promote Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group she helps lead. Zaslavsky admitted to thinking “people on the right were beholden to special interests or they were thinking backward.”

Pressed to see how others come to their beliefs, rather than just aiming to change minds, reveals commonalities, both said. “People’s hearts are in the right place,” Zaslavsky said.

“We go into the conversations assuming we all want the same things, like safety and freedom,” Westa said. “It has changed how I talk to people on the left. I have made a lot of friends.”

This story about campus political dialogue was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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