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graphic people pulling in opposite on a rope.By: Kim Strom, Director of the UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Ethics and Policy and the School of Social Work’s Smith P. Theimann Jr. Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Professional Practice

In 2022, scholars affiliated with The Constructive Dialogue Institute and Aspen Institute’s project on Citizenship and American Identity conducted research on conflict on college campuses. In its descriptions of the causes of conflict in higher education, and its proffered solutions, the resulting report rang true with many readers here at UNC. Today’s Supreme Court ruling on the role of racial considerations in college admissions (and the ardent arguments that accompanied the majority and the dissents), suggest that harmony and compromise will continue to be elusive goals. The ethics and policy team (composed of faculty, staff, and undergraduate interns) all reviewed the report and offered our reviews. As you will see, our different positions and perspectives led us to embrace different parts, but all of us found merit in the analysis and recommendations.

As I conclude my term as Director of Ethics and Policy, I am heartened to see alignment with the report and many of the issues and efforts we have tried to address since our office was founded in 2016. I am grateful for the wisdom of the UNC working groups who envisioned a place of ethics and policy on campus and everyone who helped support our small but mighty team along the way. I hope the “Conflict Report” can become a road map to help all of us bring more understanding, integrity, honesty, and fairness to our university communities.

Rinke: I really enjoyed reading this article. It was clearly organized and easy to understand. Under the sections on types of conflict, “social media” and “organizational complexity” stood out to me. The article discusses how social media often escalates conflict and provides a platform to misinformation. Additionally, the article outlines how complexity within an organization that has many people and hierarchies might lead to miscommunication between leadership and students. As a student, I recognize both of these conflicts from life on campus. However, I think social media can also be used to increase organizational transparency to reduce miscommunication from organizational complexity. Through social media, organizations can directly reach students to inform them about policy updates or about recent conflicts.

Zoe: When reading the “Transforming Conflict on College Campuses” report, several things came to mind. The section that addresses the increasing organizational complexity of higher educational institutions caught my attention because as a student this helps to explain why many of my peers feel as if they are shouting into the void when they attempt to seek help from their college or university. Additionally, the finding from the “Head versus Heart” section that universities can prioritize intellect sometimes at the expense of the whole person, unfortunately, reminds me of the issues UNC has dealt with when it comes to the mental health of students. This rings true particularly when I think of those, including myself, who dealt with the mental ramifications of being entirely remote during COVID-19 while still being expected to excel academically under uniquely difficult conditions. Lastly, given the heightened hostility within our current political climate, the finding that institutions are used as political pawns seemed particularly relevant, and not just for universities, but even elementary schools in some cases. Overall, I think this report highlights a series of pertinent issues that must be considered when addressing conflict on college campuses. However, to a certain extent, I feel that a lot of the findings are based on common sense and already assumed in the mind of the audience prior to reading the report.

Emma: Accounting for the complexity that each conflict entails, this report outlines the responsibility of institutions to create an environment where voices are accounted for and their perspectives are celebrated. At UNC, we are lucky to have a diverse student body that is both involved and passionate, but amongst these passions it has become increasingly necessary to establish guiding principles to help confront presented challenges. I found the principle of establishing norms proactively to be particularly purposeful in its acknowledgement of overlapping micro-communities. In understanding our population of eclectic backgrounds, we can better delve into a norm of inclusivity and communal acceptance.

Jimmy: With conflict on campus, it is important that we are constructive in our efforts to resolve potential situations that may arise. For this, we must first be progressive in our attempts to look ahead. It is thus important that the solution to any conflict be multi-dimensional. Parties cannot always be satisfied with a one-dimensional solution. They must be beneficial for all, as well as all-encompassing. Essentially, any conflict must have a compromise. At the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, it is essential that both students and faculty work towards finding common ground. Often, this can be a tall task. Faculty do not understand the overall culture within the student population because they are not students. Likewise, students cannot begin to understand the difficulties that faculty face when attempting to make policy changes. So as to alleviate this, the University must begin to bridge the gap.

In my earnest opinion, this can be achieved with a solid foundation of campus norms. In some circumstances, this could include campus-wide service events where faculty and students have the chance to engage in casual discourse. Simple communication in this sense may not even involve a discussion of campus conflicts. Discussion of campus conflicts is not the goal here. Plainly put, the goal here is mere communication. If students and faculty are able to communicate as peers, and not as adversaries, it is more likely that they will be on the same page. One of the best ways to achieve this is with an event like Global Ethics Month. With Global Ethics Month, students are able to critically engage with faculty in a constructive manner. Faculty can facilitate rational, non-reactionary discussion about many of the ethical standards the University abides by. If there are issues with organizational aspects of many admin duties, students could have the knowledge of it. Instead of merely shouting demands into a void, students can engage in healthy discussions with faculty in person. This, I believe, is the so-called “human” characteristic that university policy is missing.

Shoshana: My takeaways from this report are that there seem to be a lot of competing agendas in higher education that may exist inherently or be exacerbated by a lack of communication and transparency. There’s a balancing between reacting to things that have already happened and being more proactive to better prepare for future events. Assumptions that result from poor communication by administrators, staff, and students, lead to misalignment of values and priorities and a growing sense of mistrust within the institution.

This is especially true of an institution as large and complex as UNC-Chapel Hill. Even the terms people use such as “accountability” and “transparency” may mean different things to different people, so it’s important to build a common vocabulary – the University may be meeting its definition of “transparency” while students or staff may not think it’s transparent enough. It also seems like students look to leadership to represent them and their interests, but University administrators may want to lead students in a direction incongruent with student’s goals. So what is the role of University leadership now? And what should it be in the future?

I think Strategy 6 seems most on-point for addressing these issues – Using participatory practices in decision making. While it’s clear that conflicts arise in situations where there isn’t a policy covering the topic, it’s also clear that policies can’t solve everything. So just adding another policy won’t eliminate conflict. But getting buy-in from the community at large would be important. It would allow people to build a shared vocabulary to avoid assumptions and miscommunications. It would be open and transparent, while encouraging participation and compromise. It would also lead to greater acceptance if people knew how decisions were made and that their voices were heard.

Matt: Building on my colleagues…In the Policy Limitations (p. 17), the text says “communities need to decide among themselves how and when they will respond to hateful speech that – while protected by the First Amendment – has a detrimental impact on individuals, communities, and campus climate.

  • It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about “higher education” because of the diversity of institutions, their missions, and their histories. For example, private institutions of higher education are not bound by the First Amendment and so have more ability to control/limit speech than public institutions. Of course, the administration at a private institution issuing a decree about speech with little to no input from the campus community may not go over very well with that community.
  • For those of us at public institutions, it’s not clear what responses institutions can legally take without quickly finding themselves in court like this recent Washington Post article talks about.

The “Words that Work Hard” section (p. 25) stated the importance of having a collective vocabulary and the need to “disambiguate the terms by talking about what they mean.”

  • I connected that with our Statement of Ethics, which has “Four Working Principles,” each with their own bulleted list of sub-items. However, there is no broader explanation or definition of these terms. I think it’s critical we (or the Chancellor at this point) work with campus stakeholders, including students, to develop common definitions of the words in the Statement of Ethics so we have broad agreement on what “accountability” means, for example.

The concept of “trust” kept popping up for me as a theme when I read the report.

  • The word “trust” appears 19 times in the report (including in words like “distrust”), but the distribution is interesting – almost all the uses of the word are in the sections identifying problems. Only Strategy #6 – Use participatory practices in decision-making (p. 46) uses the word “trust” when recommending specific actions to improve how conflicts are managed on college campuses.
  • I think that is a mistake. I do think the authors used trust implicitly when they talked about other strategies, but I personally look at the current state of “unhealthy, toxic, or intractable conflict” (p. 4) on campus and orient all of the strategies around this broader idea of the need to build trust, even in a society where people can retreat to their favorite echo chamber online, or television, etc. and not have to do the hard work of engaging with others that look, sound, think, believe, or talk differently than they do.

I also keep coming back to the idea of “sensemaking.”

  • This quote (admittedly from the Wikipedia article about sensemaking) really jumped out at me: “The rise of the sensemaking perspective marks a shift of focus in organization studies from how decisions shape organizations to how meaning drives organizing (Weick, 1993). The aim was to focus attention on the largely cognitive activity of framing experienced situations as meaningful. It is a collaborative process of creating shared awareness and understanding out of different individuals’ perspectives and varied interests.” This idea of balancing the need for shared norms and social understandings with respect for individual’s varying experiences and opinions seems fundamental to the argument the Transforming Conflict document is making (and the idea of building trust).

Strategy # 1 – Establish organizational values (p. 37) is critical, but simply writing them down is not enough.

  • The document does say that organizations should “explicitly nurture, highlight, and live organizational values.” The “live” part of that should be incorporated into the title of the strategy to emphasize its importance. If the people in an organization, particularly those who hold positions of formal authority, do not live those values (and are not punished/are even rewarded for it) then people become jaded and cynical. This further undermines trust in each other and in the organization.
  • Again, I tie this back to our Statement of Shared Values. If Kevin rolls them out and the exectuve leadership doesn’t change, it may be worse than not having values at all. Alternatively, publishing the values could lead to real, positive change in how leaders at all levels of the organization (formal and informal) think about themselves and their responsibilities to their coworkers and the institution.

Strategy #3 – Invest in administration, staff, and faculty training and skill building (p. 42) is important.

  • Things like “cultural humility and holistic student development” are difficult to wrestle with and giving people the opportunity to practice, and fail, in a safe environment is critical to people developing the “muscle memory” necessary to start using these concepts in the real world.
  • I see this as related to Strategic Initiative #3 – Enable career development, in the University’s Strategic Plan. Strategic Initiative #3 states, in part: “We strive to foster professional development and growth opportunities for our students, staff, faculty, and alumni, and to create a culture where all feel welcome and included, embrace the mission of the University, and make meaningful contributions to their communities and beyond.”
  • Building conflict management skills, including things like cultural humility, should be mandatory for all employees on at least an annual basis, with workshops to help people practice, not just a bland third-party generated slideshow to click through.

Kim: You can see why I’ll miss working with this team! We have alignment on mission as well as diverse perspectives.

I have worked in higher ed for 35 years, serving at private and public (flagship and regional) institutions. I have been an adjunct professor, administrator, professional staff, and faculty member. Three things in the report especially resonated for me.

First, the power and accuracy of the case examples. One about student-professor classroom conflict illustrated a common issue that affects the professor and student, as well as the whole class, and the administrators and mentors who are called upon to mediate the dispute. While conflicts like this are not at all new, over the course of my career I have seen them become more difficult to solve. Apologies are insufficient. Insight is lacking. Too much damage has been done. Grace and humility are in short supply. Power and alliances render some actors untrustworthy. These situations, always uncomfortable, are now intractable.

The second takeaway from the report “Explicitly nurture, highlight, and live organizational values”. Most organizations, corporations, and universities have statements of values. UNC Chapel Hill does not. To quote Charles Kuralt, “What is it that binds us to this place?”. Values provide touchstones. They guide priority setting and budget decisions. They allow us to say “This is how we want to be as a community… How we want to treat each other and be treated.” They help establish constructive norms that can powerfully guide behavior. I hope that UNC will engage with the challenge of identifying shared values. The prominence in this report tells me it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

And in it all, as the Report suggests, work within your locus of control, center dignity, and pay attention to the process, not just the outcome.

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