We have been listening closely, with shared concern, as our higher education colleagues manage recent turbulence on their campuses in response to the violence that continues to unfold in Israel and Gaza. As we watch and read about the ongoing pain and turmoil at the heart of protests unfolding across campuses, it is clear to us that this a moment that we, and higher education broadly, cannot and should not ignore. As we often do in moments that give us profound pause and draw out our emotional reactions, we turned recently to the ideas that drive our work for clarity and grounding.
Nearly 10 years ago, in our book, The Moment You Can’t Ignore, we defined an unignorable moment as “an event or action…that stops you and your organization in its tracks, a moment when it becomes blindingly clear that new ways of working are clashing with existing ones and forces organizations to confront complex underlying issues at the core of their cultures, values, and strategies.”
These moments are often distressing, yet they can also be opportunities for reflection, dialogue, and change. We are in such a moment where higher education institutions must wrestle with critical questions that surface deep issues about organizational culture, purpose, leadership and identity.
This moment has bubbled up from many that have come before in recent years. As a nation, we are grappling with fundamental questions about the future of democracy, equity and inclusion, and recovery from a global pandemic, to name a few. Unsurprisingly, these questions have been at the center of academic life as institutions whose very roots and missions are to create and disperse knowledge that can build an informed citizenry.
These unignorable moments can create platforms for dialogue and for raising more significant existential questions. We have been asking ourselves such questions, including:
- How can academic leaders leverage trusting and stable relationships to move forward when anger and fear dominate?
- Even when diverse points of view feel intractable, how can leaders still support communities to center on shared values and open dialogue?
- How can this moment demonstrate the ultimate relevance of higher education as a place where these kinds of conversations can be powerfully engaged?
We looked for existing examples of constructive approaches to bridge the polarization that is taking place on campuses. We consider these “found pilots”—examples of where the future outcomes you seek already exist—and great opportunities from which to learn.
Programs in Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies at Dartmouth College have had a long history of connection. Faculty in the two departments co-teach courses, and their student groups work together regularly. They bring a diversity of perspectives on the conflict between Israel and Palestine into conversation with each other. Collaborative practices have allowed trust to develop over time between the two programs. This trust allowed the relationships to withstand the fear and anger that surfaced on October 7, though existed before and beyond. Gatherings for conversation also provided space for students and faculty to ask hard questions and for strong emotions to be discharged in a safer environment.
A second example came from Harvard University, perhaps an unexpected source given the divisiveness recently covered in the media. Even in the most charged and challenging environment, there are often still bright spots that can help shape the future path. Harvard students launched an Israel-Palestine text hotline after tensions on campus escalated. The hotline is staffed by Harvard students representing personal identities and academic disciplines spanning the conflict. Any student who has a question can text the hotline. Then, student volunteers get to work. Rather than providing a definitive answer, the student volunteers pull vetted information sources representing multiple points of view and share resources helping students know where to look for information in the future. The initiative came to life to bring students directly into conversation with their peers and provide a greater understanding of the full conflict rather than single points of view.
These examples highlight the critical importance of soft skills and the power of relationships and exemplify the kind of learning-centered dialogue that higher education is most capable of. They bring us back to those critical questions about leadership and identity. At Dartmouth and Harvard, leadership did not have to come only from the top. At Dartmouth, department leaders (Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies) valued the courage of their colleagues and students to engage in challenging, civil discourse based on the trust they had cultivated with each other over many years. At Harvard, students led. While the relationships were nascent, the team of student volunteers brought a systems thinking approach and centered a shared value: assumptions can keep you from seeing individuals. This is a lesson we know well—when we seek to understand the system and rally around mutual values, we create space for dialogue to build bridges from polarization to critical thinking.
We do not share these examples to oversimplify the difficult situations that leaders and boards find themselves navigating. Nor do we suggest that traversing the real stakes of the most divisive conflicts and horrific events is straightforward. We do, however, believe that focusing on shared values and relationships—whether you are a college sophomore or a university president—can provide a roadmap through this change. We are reminded of a talk about leadership in challenging times from Thasunda Brown Duckett, the first black woman to lead TIAA, who said, “You rent your title; you own your character.”
Unignorable moments are painful, particularly when they are public. They also open opportunities to slow down, reflect, and focus on critical questions. While there may be no easy path forward, the commitment to curiosity, open dialogue, learning and strong relationships paves the way for a more resilient and proactive higher education landscape.