Students to Engage in Dialogue on Divisive Issues

Next week Tech students will host Finding Common Ground, a series of talks designed to promote intellectual discussion and civility on campus. Consisting of three workshop sessions and culminating with a public address by poet Maya Angelou on Nov. 15, the series was spearheaded by the Student Government Association (SGA), with support from the administration. The Whistle contributor David Terraso recently spoke with Alison Graab, undergraduate SGA president, and Dean of Students John Stein about the state of public discussion on campus.

What is Finding Common Ground?
AG: It's an idea [students] came up with to encourage dialogues on campus. So, we have three small group sessions comprised of 50-75 students each that are supposed to bring students from different facets of the community to the same table, teach them skills on how to dialogue on difficult issues and also help them understand the perspective of other students on campus.

When you say 'difficult issues,' what do you mean by that?
AG: I think it centers on differences in opinions. The war, in particular, is a difficult issue for students to converse about and express their different views civilly. There have been a number of times where students tried to promote dialogue and did so in a controversial way to spark interest, but the reaction from other students was to try to shut the dialogue down - they just wanted to see it go away rather than conversing and learning from it.

Is that the way Georgia Tech might have handled controversial speech in the past?

JS: I don't think that's how Tech handled it in the past. What's different is that we are having to confront and problem-solve situations that have not occurred on this campus often in the past. It's a new day for us in terms of dealing with important issues that are playing out both here on our campus and in the larger world. Our students come from all over the world. They bring their culture and their history; they bring their concerns of life back home when they're on the Georgia Tech campus. Some choose to express those concerns in more public ways.

AG: I think you're right, but I do think there's been a lag time in the learning from administrators on how to react, and I'll give an example. When an e-mail was sent out by the African American Student Union [in response to changes in the Housing Department's speech code for residents] stating "did you know it's OK to use the 'n-word' at Georgia Tech?", the reaction from administrators was very intense. I think the feeling some administrators had was that it had to be stopped.

JS: Like I said, I think we're in new territory. Today, some students are surprised that we would allow a student organization to send out an e-mail using a controversial word like that, or trigger-word, but others felt like there was nothing wrong with it - they were exercising their right to free speech.

I think it goes back to the fact that there are some students, faculty and staff wondering whether these recent changes in campus climate are in the best interest of Tech's future. Beginning to answer that question is what Finding Common Ground is all about - getting the community engaged in a dialogue about important issues pertinent to our campus. Some of this is new for us, but for other colleges and universities, it's part of the their daily fabric and culture.

Why is it new for Georgia Tech?
AG: It's not surprising that students are changing what they do on campus and how much they speak because, specifically, there's a leadership program now, there's an international program, an undergraduate research option, and an honors program that specifically makes its students attend speaker series and have conversations with the speaker and engage in intense debate. It's not surprising to me that they're continuing those sorts of things outside of the classroom.

JS: It's also due to our increased population. We have many more students now than five or 10 years ago. We also have students who are choosing Tech for majors other than engineering. So I think we're attracting a more multifaceted student body. I also think it's a generation of college students who are concerned about what's going on in the world and want to get involved.

So what is the gain in being able to have these discussions, if it means some will be offended?
AG: I think the gain for students is that the more you can listen to someone else's perspective and not tune them out, the better you are at making decisions and interacting with other people, and the more successful you can be in the workplace because you have that skill. I've heard this from Tech alumni time after time.

Another thing is that engineering is top-ranked and if we want to improve from here we have to bring up every other program we have at our school. And doing that is a lot about having dialogues and focusing on liberal arts and focusing on skills that management students might want. That will provide a more well-rounded educational experience and a more well-rounded student.

JS: My hope is that faculty will get involved, because their voice is currently absent. The student voice is there, the administrative voice is there, but I'm not hearing much from the faculty.

Why should faculty be involved?
JS: Because they are a very important part of the community, and they spend a lot of time with students both in and out of the classroom. I know students respect Tech faculty. I also know some are wondering what the faculty are thinking about regarding these issues. It would be a richer conversation if faculty were actively engaged and involved more. One way is for faculty to partner with students outside of the classroom by creating forums and other learning experiences.

After Finding Common Ground, what's next?
JS: The Georgia Tech community will have to step up to the challenge to continue to think of creative and educational ways to continue what's been started. I think we all - students, faculty and staff - have a place and a responsibility in continuing what this program has started. What's next is for someone to say, "I'm thinking of something that plays very nicely into this, and I'd like others to help me make it happen."

AG: My hope is that we have a better understanding of our expectations in discussion, that we will come out with a new model that allows for free expression and understanding, and that we will learn how to deal with it when we don't agree or are offended by what's being said.

JS: There are many creative ways to think about this and challenge ourselves to continue this work. The Finding Common Ground series is an excellent first step. I'm excited to hear Maya Angelou. I have been reading her writings - she really is a humanitarian who has wonderful insight into people, regardless of their race, gender or political affiliation. I think that's part of what this is about: how do we suspend, for a few moments, the labels that we place on each other and come together to find common ground and hopefully in the process appreciate and value each other more.

Maya Angelou's address will be at 8 p.m. in Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Free tickets for Tech students, faculty and staff are available at the Student Center Box Office and online at the link below. Each attendee is now allowed to purchase one guest ticket at the Student Center Box Office for $10.

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Georgia Institute of Technology
North Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30332
Phone: 404-894-2000