Grant supports work to bridge differences and address polarization on college campuses

$100K grant from Cummings Foundation promotes dialogue across differences, encourages civic engagement at Tufts University and beyond
Tisch College
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) takes questions from Tufts students during a discussion of her career, on February 21, 2018. (Credit: Anna Miller, Tufts University)
June 28, 2018

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Robin Smyton

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MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. (June 28, 2018)—At a time of debate about free speech and expression on college campuses, the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University will research best practices and develop and disseminate resources to bridge divides in higher education, thanks to a $100,000 grant from Cummings Foundation.

The grant will support and extend the Bridging Differences Initiative at Tufts, which was launched with the goal of developing strategies to engage constructively across partisan and other divisions.

As discourse on some college campuses has become increasingly polarized and volatile, institutions of higher learning are increasingly finding themselves at the center of a national debate on how to encourage engagement, expression and respect for opposing viewpoints, while balancing inclusion and safety.

This grant will allow Tisch College's IDHE to research colleges and universities across the country that have seen increased student activism or faced challenging incidents involving controversial speakers, toxic speech, conflicts between academic personnel and administration, and on-campus extremism initiated by outside groups. The aim of the research is to explore how universities are approaching the current climate on their campuses, identify challenges and identify and share practices that have been effective in mediating conflicts, while promoting student learning and the free exchange of ideas.

"Free expression, particularly in academic settings, is critical to high quality learning, and equally important is the goal of providing inclusive and equitable learning conditions. This is not a zero-sum game, and many campuses know how to achieve both objectives," said Nancy Thomas, director of Tisch College's Institute for Democracy and Higher Education.  "This grant from Cummings Foundation will illuminate these practices, with benefits to civic life at Tufts and other university communities."

Tisch College's IDHE serves as a leading venue for research, resources and advocacy on college student voting, political learning and engagement in democratic practice. The institute's signature initiative is the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE), which studies college student voter registration and voting rates, and a close examination of civic life on a myriad of campuses. Last fall NSLVE published its first study, on college voting rates in the 2016 election.

Led by Thomas, the research team will leverage the 1,100 colleges and universities that participate in NSLVE, and include members of the higher education community at every level. The research database of NSLVE member institutions includes nearly half of all college students in the United States.

The study will explore structures, behaviors, practices and interventions that treat conflict as a learning opportunity.

A broad review of how a variety of institutions approached these issues will establish a framework of best practices for universities to use in the future as the best way to support their students and university communities.

In addition to papers and presentations that educate and inform on the study's findings, the grant will fund resources and workshops for other colleges and universities, which will be disseminated through meetings at Tufts, in addition to national conferences.

The Bridging Differences Initiative's mission is to improve understanding and engagement across divergent perspectives at Tufts, through effective communication and programming. The work of the initiative strives to make Tufts a leader in mediating conflict, reducing polarization and developing strategies that can be used by other institutions.

The Bridging Differences Task Force solicited feedback from university students, staff and faculty, and held a number of meetings during the 2017-18 academic year. Bridging Differences also co-sponsored events, with Tisch College, that brought speakers like conservative pundit Bill Kristol and progressive Neera Tanden, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to discuss their experiences working through differences and engaging with other points of view.

Cummings Foundation, Inc., established in 1986 by Tufts alumnus and trustee emeritus Bill Cummings and his wife, Joyce Cummings, has awarded grants to non-profit organizations serving a broad range of causes in greater Boston and around the world, including human services, education, health care and social justice. With assets exceeding $1.4 billion, it is one of the largest foundations in New England. The foundation directly operates its own charitable subsidiaries, including two New Horizons retirement communities, in Marlborough and Woburn, Massachusetts.  The Cummings' philanthropy has had a significant impact on the Tufts community in particular, including a $50 million naming gift in support of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, the foundation's largest single commitment to date.

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About Tufts University

Tufts University, located on campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville and Grafton, Massachusetts, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.