In his new book “Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age” John Sexton, former president of New York University, cites poll data showing a majority of Americans believe “universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country.”
Sexton argues to the contrary: “I believe universities can play a unique role in rebuilding the kind of discourse on which participatory democracy depends.” He calls the university “sacred space for discourse,” in which ideally the pursuit of truth calls for collaboration, dialogue, critique, and a combination of boldness and humility.
On April 29, the Interfaith Center for Peace and Justice gave its Peacemaker Awards to two people associated with Gettysburg College (a “university” as Sexton uses the word) who exemplify Sexton’s point.
Kerr Thompson, who received the Peacemaker of the Year Award, was a professor of Spanish at the college for 30 years. Concerned about increasing incivility in American political discourse, in 2018, with the help of others, he founded the local Better Angels alliance. Better Angels describes itself as “a nationwide citizens’ movement uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America.” It brings together equal numbers of red and blue voters for structured, moderated conversations, where the emphasis is on listening and understanding rather than persuading. “I have observed and conducted workshops,” Thompson says, “whose participants were initially wary of ‘those people’ sitting next to them but ended up chatting with them warmly.” For Better Angels, he says, “Genuine peace and justice come through understanding and reconciliation.”
Sexton describes the university leader as “guardian of sacred space.” This has characterized the Lifetime of Peacemaking Award winner, Janet Morgan Riggs, who retires this year after 42 years at Gettysburg College as student, faculty member, and, since 2008, president. The president’s role as guardian meets a particular challenge when a campus group invites a controversial outside speaker. President Riggs faced what she calls a “pivotal moment” in 2017 when a student group invited the anti-Muslim speaker Robert Spencer. Riggs, after much consultation and deliberation, decided to allow the lecture but also to invite another speaker with a different point of view. She gave encouragement to a student-organized unity rally concurrent with Spencer’s speech. “Some of our Muslim students told me that night that they had never felt more supported on campus,” Riggs said. The event sparked a year-long discussion process resulting in an institutional statement on freedom of expression, endorsed by students, faculty, and the board of trustees. “People came together, and much listening and learning took place,” Riggs summarized.
Civil conversations, Sexton says, serve their purpose only if no voices are left out, and this is a particular responsibility of the academic leader. The citation on President Riggs’s award honors her “For promoting diversity and inclusion efforts at Gettysburg College and throughout the community.” In accepting the award, Riggs spoke of her own commitment to welcoming students of differing races, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions, and socioeconomic classes, but she emphasized that this was a communal effort. She concluded, “I accept this award proudly in honor of all of those at Gettysburg College who work so hard to advance peace and justice, and with great hope and confidence in what our students will bring to the world as they graduate.”