Photo: University of Scranton campus

Building Campus Resilience with the University of Scranton

Photo: Scranton Impachment Dialogues

Following the 2016 elections, a coalition of campus leaders from across Lackawanna County, located in Northeast Pennsylvania, came together to take the temperature of their campuses and the broader community. How were the national divisiveness and harmful dynamics playing out locally?

One of the leaders was Julie Schumacher Cohen, Assistant Vice President for Community Engagement and Government Affairs for the University of Scranton, a Catholic Jesuit University in the county. Using Essential Partners’ Guide to Conversations Across the Red-Blue Divide, Cohen and higher education colleagues embarked on a pilot dialogue project with students from several different colleges and universities.

The conversations sparked deeper engagement across the partisan divide, but participants and facilitators alike felt the potential for more depth, more connection, more understanding.

“The faculty were very interested in the potential of dialogue,” said Cohen, “but they had a particular challenge: ‘I’m a teacher, but this is a different set of skills; I don’t generally facilitate dialogue,’ they shared. We knew we needed a hands-on training and we also wanted to be able to more intentionally incorporate the University’s Jesuit tradition.”

It was clear there was more need for carefully designed campus discussions to grapple with the significance of the issues and deeper questions about values and identities, and not simply retreat to groups with the same views, the same concerns, but greater skills and capacity were critical.

That’s when they called Essential Partners.

Proactive Steps to Build Capacity

“We were acting proactively,” she said. “We felt that there could be explosive incidents, because people just weren’t discussing politics constructively. Instead of waiting, we wanted to build our own capacity to talk meaningfully as a campus community.”

The University of Scranton hired Essential Partners to lead faculty and staff training, with a special focus on the synergy between Ignatian Spirituality and EP’s approach.

“The Jesuit tradition,” explained Cohen, “rooted in discernment, reflection, justice and reconciliation—encourages us to choose to engage in dialogue with conviction and humility.”

With ongoing consultation from EP practitioners, there have since been a series of student dialogues leveraging Jesuit spiritual-reflective practices, covering topics such as political and social values, the role of guns, immigration and refugees, the NFL national anthem protests, as well as free speech and political correctness.

Enis Murtaj ’20, one of the student dialogue participants, reflected on the power of dialogue to transform the underlying dynamics. “These dialogues offer students an opportunity to explore new ideas and share their own ideas with an emphasis on listening. Given today’s political polarization, it is crucial for people with opposing views to hear each other out and work together for the betterment of our society.”

The dialogue organizers take care in the topics they choose, the questions they ask, and how the groups are constructed—with diverse political affiliations and backgrounds.

Jessica Nolan, Professor of Psychology and dialogue initiative leader, says that EP’s dialogue structure fosters inclusion in diverse groups. “Research on prejudice reduction shows that in order for contact to effectively reduce prejudice the groups must have equal status, at least within the context of the contact. By providing each participant with the same amount of ‘air time’ the structured nature of the dialogue effectively communicates that everyone's opinion is equally valued.”

Photo: Scranton Dialogues

"Facilitated dialogue creates a classroom atmosphere in which exploring uncomfortable issues and asking difficult questions is an expected part of the process, and it allows students space to engage each other without fear of the vitriol common in our public discourse."

Teresa Grettano, Associate Professor and Director of the First-Year Writing program

University of Scranton

Ripple Effects: Community Dialogues, Jesuit Network

The ripple effects of a campus training have reached the classes taught, the larger Scranton community, as well as broader network of Jesuit colleges and universities.

University of Scranton faculty members have incorporated EP’s approach into their classrooms and syllabi. One course on political dialogue, co-taught by one writing and one theology faculty, teaches EP’s approach to undergraduate students, along with story-exchange and other methods to provide students with an experiential learning experience.

"Students long to discuss important political issues,” says Teresa Grettano, Associate Professor and Director of the First-Year Writing program and dialogue initiative leader. “But frequently they lack models for how to do so in ways that reflect their values, relationships, and goals. Facilitated dialogue creates a classroom atmosphere in which exploring uncomfortable issues and asking difficult questions is an expected part of the process, and it allows students space to engage each other without fear of the vitriol common in our public discourse."

University staff, students, and faculty also coordinated a series of dialogues on race and justice with high school students in the Scranton area. “You would not believe the depth and nuance of these conversations,” Cohen reported.

In spring 2019, they led dialogues among university students and local residents through the support of the American Library Association’s “American Creed” documentary project. In fall 2019, they convened “Faith and Politics – A Conversation” with faith groups, higher education partners and the support of Lackawanna County’s Department of Arts and Culture.

Inspired by the impact of Essential Partners’ approach, Cohen has begun working on an Ignatian Guide to Political Dialogue and has shared insights from Scranton’s initiative in the Jesuit America magazine. EP’s training and resources will serve as key resources for the document, which she hopes to publish in time for the 2020 Justice Conference, a meeting of Jesuit higher education faculty and staff that will be held at Georgetown University where Cohen, Nolan, and Grettano will present on Scranton’s dialogue initiative.