Office of the Provost launches Bridging Differences Initiative to encourage open dialogue on campus

Provost and Senior Vice President of Tufts University David Harris poses for a portrait on Sept. 14, 2017. (Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily)

The Office of the Provost launched the Bridging Differences Initiative this fall to encourage people with “profoundly different” points of view to openly discuss their thoughts and opinions.

The initiative, led by Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris and Chief Diversity Officer Amy Freeman, is aimed towards creating a strategy to engage meaningfully with difficult topics on campus, Harris said.

A task force of students, faculty and staff selected over the summer by Harris and Freeman will meet for the first time in late September, according to Harris. More students have joined the task force since the Tufts community was notified about the initiative in the Sept. 3 Jumbo Digest email.

Harris outlined two principal goals for the initiative: to understand the cause of polarization on campus and to implement further projects beyond this task force.

“We hope … when people are leaving here as students or as faculty or staff, they come away having engaged far more broadly and deeply than they would have otherwise,” Harris said.

According to Freeman, all Tufts schools are represented on the task force, which consists of students, faculty and staff.

“We’re looking for a cross-section of people with wide viewpoints, so I think it’s going to be a great working group to carry out some of the plans we have,” Freeman said.

According to Harris, one of the task force’s jobs will be to identify ways to enhance open and civil dialogue on campus. He acknowledged that students and staff alike are often hesitant to voice their opinions for fear of backlash, so a vital part of the initiative will include fostering an environment in which members of the Tufts community feel comfortable engaging with each other.

“This is focused in many ways in engagement and inclusion and [on] helping all of us become better at engaging outside of our comfort zone and outside of our areas of experience, ideas and so forth,” Harris said.

Some have criticized Tufts for stifling free speech in the past, including Students Advocating for Students President Jake Goldberg, who sparked a heated debate last year after claiming that Tufts’ disciplinary policies are excessively restrictive of students’ speech.

Goldberg felt that the backlash he faced from his efforts was telling.

“I think it was indicative of the many problems this school has when it comes to free speech issues. You have hundreds of students verbally abusing a student who’s supporting free speech publicly on campus, and then the administration did, in my opinion, very little to address that,” Goldberg, a junior, said.

Tufts Community Union (TCU) President Benya Kraus said advocating for free speech means accepting that your views might be criticized.

“I think it’s a little hypocritical to claim freedom of speech but then [feel] angry when there is a backlash against the thing you said … That backlash is also a form of free speech,” Kraus, a senior, said.

Kraus emphasized that students should speak intentionally to engage in productive conversation.

“We’ll have more productive and honestly meaningful conversations if we can always root ourselves to the intentions of ‘What is my goal of having this discussion with you? – is it rooted in a place of love, love for my community, love for a desire to make a change?” she said.  “And with that as your goal, what kind of language will get you to that goal?”

George Behrakis, president of the Tufts Republicans, believes the Bridging Differences Initiative is a good start to acknowledging some of the problems on campus regarding political polarization. Behrakis argued that the liberal “echo chamber” on campus can keep people close-minded to other opinions.

“I think it’s very enriching as a person to learn how to listen to other people, understand where they’re coming from and use their knowledge to enhance your own,” Behrakis, a sophomore, said.

Behrakis said that discussion with people who have differing opinions can offer important benefits.

“Here I wake up and 95 percent of the people around me are disagreeing with me, and that’s fine,” Behrakis said. “I enjoy it because it gives me fuel to actually learn how to defend myself, my beliefs and fine-tune some of them because I’m getting challenged constantly.”

Behrakis noted the importance of college students feeling uncomfortable.

“You’re supposed to be exposed to things that you haven’t been exposed to before, because they add to your experience, not take away,” he said.

Behrakis acknowledged that the politically-homogeneous climate on campus can make students feel hesitant about expressing more conservative views.

“There’s a lot of people who are afraid, for better or worse, because they feel that they will lose friends or they will feel stigmatized or left out of a group,” Behrakis said .

The Bridging Differences Initiative closely resembles the Tufts Cooperation and Innovation in Citizenship (CIVIC) model, an organization that provides a forum for people of all political ideologies to discuss things openly without fear of ridicule, according to treasurer of CIVIC Daniel Lewis.

Lewis, a sophomore, said the initiative has the potential to be a positive development for the student body.

“In my mind, it’s something that CIVIC provides, and for it to be an institutional thing is not bad. If the school wants to provide a space for that, that’s great,” Lewis said. “It’s not a solution — that kind of thing can become more of a comment box — but even so, that’s not bad. I appreciate the fact that this is something they’re trying to do.”

Lewis suggested that bringing in more controversial speakers, hiring teachers with diverse perspectives and continuing to allow organizations such as CIVIC to thrive would help contribute to the goals of the task force.

Harris said engaging across differences works best when students assume good intentions from one another. 

“I hope that we can all — and this sounds naive or simplistic somewhat — but maybe put ourselves out there a little bit more and be a little more forgiving of one another and assume more than we all do that people come from a good place,” Harris said.  “I think the more we do that, the more we open ourselves up for the really positive interactions that the vast majority of people are trying to have across these lines [of difference].”