This fall, the Office of the Provost launched the Bridging Differences Initiative, aimed to promote constructive dialogue within the Tufts community on a variety of difficult issues. “Many members of our community are effective at engaging across lines of difference, but we believe that all of us can do better,” University President Anthony Monaco and Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris wrote in an email announcing the launch of a task force of students, faculty and staff members dedicated to tackling political polarization on campus.
While the administration’s acknowledgment of campus division and the effort to combat it is commendable, Bridging Differences ultimately provides little opportunity for the real improvement of on-campus life for students.
Liberal arts college campuses are almost always hotbeds of liberal values. Couple that with the fact that Tufts is located in the Greater Boston area, and it should be no surprise that the political climate on campus appears to lean heavily left. Existing student groups like CIVIC already work toward the goal of fostering more discourse among those with different ideologies, but are limited by a key issue; only those who see dialogue with the ‘other side’ as valuable are likely to show up to their meetings or have a dialogue with others in the first place.
While the problem of political division exists throughout the country right now, what is more immediately pressing for Tufts students is their dwindling sense of community. With the recent controversy surrounding Greek life and the exclusivity of on-campus groups like The Rez and Tufts Dance Collective, Tufts has become increasingly fragmented. Whereas bygone traditions like the Naked Quad Run brought students from across campus together, now more than ever, Tufts students need something to create a sense of campus-wide community. Instead of working toward political unity on campus, the administration would do better to help restore Tufts’ social unity. Importantly, by restoring social unity, healthier political discourse will follow.
While engaging across the political divide is undoubtedly important, if the administration wishes to fully tackle the increasing tribalism and polarization of U.S. democracy, it must also address its causes. As Bill Bishop argues in his landmark book “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart” (2008), ideological clustering into like-minded communities has created greater polarization in America. Living in an ideologically homogenous community, he finds, leads to people becoming both more extreme and more certain in their beliefs. This bigger cause of U.S. polarization is also reflected in the fragmentation of Tufts’ social scene.
This is where the administration can and should step in. Without a central space for nightlife on campus, the social scene is rife with cliques. With the lack of large on-campus events, it’s difficult for students to meet others with dissimilar views within a non-confrontational setting. It’s easy to curse out someone you don’t know over Facebook and much harder when you have a social connection with them. One recommendation we have is establishing an on-campus pub, as it once existed at Tufts. A shared nightlife space could bring together athletes, wilder-kids and activists alike.
The administration should also help by reinstating past events and traditions, or implementing new ones. Though the administration has often responded to controversies surrounding events like Senior Pub Night by cancelling them altogether, it could instead work to run them in a more safe and controlled manner or create other events to fill the social vacuum caused by their absence.
There certainly are many differences on campus. But when we work to heal social divides, overcoming political differences will soon follow. This is the bridge we really need to cross.