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University presidents lament the challenge of leading students in era of ‘hyperpolarization’

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Multiple university presidents spoke about the challenges of leading and communicating with their students in an extremely divisive and “hyperpolarized” era fueled by social media.

Amid the turmoil of the Israel-Hamas war, an event that has created political turmoil and division internationally – particularly at American universities – the Bipartisan Policy Center hosted a webinar with four university presidents discussing the challenges they face in trying to communicate to students on hot-button issues, especially among diverse student bodies.

The presidents of the University of Dallas, James Madison University, DePauw University, and the University of Washington said that it now requires care and patience to craft statements for their students on important issues in such a “fraught” time.

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Jewish college counter protesters

Several American university presidents weighed in on how difficult it is to give statements on current political issues considering that student bodies are so divided today. (Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The topic came up during the webinar while professors discussed the care they had to take in making statements on the recent attacks on Israel by the terror group Hamas. 

DePauw University President Lori White, for example, noted that though her school is Methodist in tradition, it has always welcomed students from other faiths. As such, she detailed that her statement on Hamas’ attack had to affirm “support for our Jewish students as well as affirming support for our Muslim students and affirming support of course for students who represented different religious traditions.”

She added that her message had to “condemn the atrocities of Hamas, to condemn the killing of our Jewish brothers and sisters, and at the same time also provide support for our Palestinian brothers and sisters.”

Several of the other professors expressed adopting a similar line in their statements on the tragedy and on other recent issues, with all noting that it is difficult to find unity on campus concerning these issues compared to previous times due to current divisions in society. 

James Madison President Jonathan Alger stated, “The example is something like 9/11. I think we all look back on that and thought, here’s a moment that seemed to be unifying for a time, right? That everybody could agree this was a horrible situation, and we needed to come together.”

He continued, “But if you think about the last few years with the incredible polarization in our society, if there was ever an issue that should have brought the world together, it was COVID, right?.. And yet it was reflected in political polarization.”

Alger added, “So think we’re in a particularly fraught time with these statements, in part because of that hyperpolarization in our country and our world.”

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University of Georgia campus

The college presidents noted how in previous generations it was easy for student bodies to unite on positions concerning real world events, like the 9/11 attacks. They claim the climate is too divisive for that now. (John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

University of Dallas President Jonathan Sanford agreed with Alger’s assessment, saying he had a “great point.” He added, “The question that I keep wrestling with and trying things out is how to get our students in particular, to not politicize everything.”

Sanford noted that the healthy debate that his generation could have over issues, where students wouldn’t be afraid to disagree with their sparring partners without them being offended, is lacking among students today.

“Those things that we all took for granted as we were going through our education are in short supply with young people today,” the president said. He also stated his belief that the “principal challenge of our time” is getting students to foster patience, dialogue, and clear thinking to get to the truth.

“It takes time, it takes study, it takes patience and respect for each other in order to get there. And none of those features are compatible with most of what you find on social media,” he declared. 

University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce provided her two cents, saying, “People are having a hard time dealing with the fact that there can be multiple positions and that if someone disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean that they’re bad.”

Cauce stated, “That’s the part that I think is very, very difficult right now – is that it’s not just that we disagree, or we see things differently, but if you don’t agree with me, you don’t just disagree with me, you’re bad. And rather than seeing someone with a different position as an ally that might be won over, or where you might find some common ground with, they’re an enemy to be vanquished.” 

“So how do we bring back that civil discourse…?” she asked, adding, “But it is – given the political atmosphere all around it, the divisiveness that was just talked about – it is hard. It is hard.” 

President White referred Fox News Digital to a recent statement of hers in which she said, “We know creating a campus environment where students feel they are fully able to engage in free expression and where all members of our wonderfully diverse community feel supported and affirmed even when there are fundamental disagreements is not easy work – college campuses are not immune from the contentiousness we are all surrounded with daily.”

White added that despite the contentiousness, pursuing this freedom of expression on campus is important. She asked that if it can’t be found on campus, “where else will students have the opportunity to practice the spirit of our democracy and to do so outside of the echo chamber in which, sadly, most of our society lives?”

The other presidents did not reply to Fox News Digital’s request for comment. 

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