Christopher Howard + Nancy Cantor
Beyond the Ivory Tower
Christopher Howard is the first African-American president of Hampden–Sydney College in Virginia, an historically white all male school in the South. He is one of the youngest college presidents in the U.S., a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Academy, and a former Rhodes Scholar. In February 2016, he will become president of Robert Morris University.
Nancy Cantor is a social psychologist and the chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark, one of the most diverse institutions in the U.S. She is widely recognized for helping forge a new understanding of the role of universities in society that re-emphasizes their public mission. She is the former chancellor of Syracuse University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
October 8, 2015
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
DR. NANCY CANTOR: Being a neighbor is not just a term. It’s not a geographic term. It’s a moral concept. What does that mean when we think about education? What if we really thought that being of a community, not just happenstance located in the community, was a moral construct about collective responsibility?
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: So what is the responsibility of institutions of higher education for the communities they inhabit? And how do they nurture students as citizens and leaders for the emerging world? These 21st-century questions are evolving the traditional ivory tower. I took them up with two visionary college presidents from two very different institutions at a national gathering of educators.
Nancy Cantor is chancellor of a large public university in the Northeast, Rutgers University–Newark — one of the most diverse institutions in the U.S. Christopher Howard is the first African-American president of an historically white all male school in the South — Hampden–Sydney College of Virginia.
DR. CHRISTOPHER HOWARD: It’s not that a student thinks it’s the right thing, but how can he or she actually be an upstander and try to address it, to be in the world, to bring those values of the civilization right there in the dorm room and the fraternity house or what have you. And it can be just as powerful as what you’re learning in that calculus class or in that political science class. And actually, to tell the truth, there’s a seamless web, when done properly, that runs through all those experiences that makes you a better citizen in the polis.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: Nancy Cantor is an esteemed social psychologist, and she’s widely recognized for helping forge a new understanding of the role of universities in society that re-emphasizes their public mission. Christopher Howard is one of the youngest college presidents in the U.S., a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Academy, and a former Rhodes Scholar with an MBA from Harvard. I spoke with them as part of our Civil Conversations Project before an audience at the American Council on Education’s 97th Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
MS. TIPPETT: The notion that we collectively are in the midst of an adventure of re-creating common life, public life, the meaning of citizen and leadership is a theme that runs throughout my life of conversation on radio. And I’ve been fascinated in recent years, as I’ve experienced diverse interlocutors reclaiming the language and practice of the citizen scientist, the citizen artist, the language of public theology, just for example. So, it was exciting as I prepared to be here today, to get a glimpse of how you and your institutions are exploring anew the nature of education and civic formation, of education for leadership in civil society amidst 21st-century realities.
I want to say just a few words before we plunge into this conversation about the limits I’ve observed just in the language around this challenge, the fact that we seem to need to reinvent our vocabulary alongside our imaginations. I also always rush to add qualifiers when I use the word civility. Because I think it’s made ineffectual by connotations of niceness and politeness. And I hear echoes of this in both of your writing, as well. The critical place of our educational institutions in this work is undeniable. And I’m just delighted to be up here with, in conversation with Nancy Cantor and Christopher Howard.
So, Nancy you grew up with a love of dancing…
DR. CANTOR: I did.
MS. TIPPETT: …and you went to Sarah Lawrence College. You landed there in 1970. And from a civic life perspective, I think 1970 was an interesting time to land on any American campus. So, what I want to ask each of you — I’ll just start with you — is if you could tell us a little bit about the earliest roots. You know, how do you trace the earliest roots, the formative experiences of your passion — and I want to expansively define this as personal and spiritual as well as intellectual — your passion for the intersection of education and civic/public/common good.
DR. CANTOR: So, I actually, for me, would trace it back to growing up in New York City. I took the subway 45 minutes every day back and forth to school. That was an education in public life. And this was, as you pointed out, during a period of women’s movement, anti-war movement, and the civil rights movement. I came from a very socially active family. Those issues were on the table. And we were very involved in the arts, and the arts is a venue always for bringing together extraordinary diversity and extraordinary public life.
So, I had — when you were talking about civility and really injecting it with something more than being nice, for me, all you have to do is remember New York City subways and you know that what public life or civility is about is really not a sugar-coated, laid-back …
MS. TIPPETT: It’s in the thick of it.
DR. CANTOR: In the thick of it.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. CANTOR: Exactly. I mean, so, when I think of education, I just think of it as it’s got to be in the world. It’s got to have that messiness. And we shouldn’t be scared of that messiness. So, I very much resonate to the notion that civility is not about covering up, pasting over, whatever the metaphors in our world that — I think it’s so ironic that we live in this world of tremendous turmoil, indifference, and conflict and we gravitate towards concepts that are covering things.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, or just not big enough, just not big enough.
DR. CANTOR: Or just not big enough.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. CANTOR: But I’d say covering things.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. [laughs] OK, Chris, let me — there’s so much that jumps out at me in your story, which is remarkable. I mean, it’s very stunning, and you say it this way often, that your great-great-grandfather was considered to be property, and that you are now president of a college, and president of a college that was originally created on a plantation. So, this question to you also, again, how would you trace the roots of your passion — personal, spiritual as well as intellectual — for this intersection we’re talking about here today?
DR. HOWARD: Sure, Krista. I’m delighted to answer the question and to be a part of this panel, especially with one my heroes here. But I think about the opportunities I’ve been honored to have and have been given. I take that extraordinarily serious, to be, as you said before, five generations removed from a slave, from a chattel. I often say that my great-great-grandfather was no different than the seats you’re sitting on now. That has informed my life coming up as a young person in Texas with parents who grew up working as sharecroppers in the summer, because black people couldn’t get jobs working at a record store or soda shop at that day and age. My father was a veteran of the Vietnam War. My uncle did two tours. They were both combat veterans, Bronze Star recipients.
And so, I saw that, those uniforms in my closet as a kid and then I saw a picture of a West Point cadet when I was in the seventh grade, going back to the formative years in your life. So, here I am in Plano, Texas, I see a picture of a West Point cadet and I said I want to be a West Pointer, which is — I’m thinking about the public sphere as public service as in military service. That’s how I came into this. But I wrote a letter to my congressman. I said “I’m Chris Howard. I’m a good student, I’m a good athlete, you need to get me an appointment to West Point when I turn 18.” He says, “You seem like a bright young man, but I’m not your congressman.”
So, I’d written the letter to the wrong person. But he forwarded it. He says this guy has hope. He couldn’t figure out my address. But I — so I ended up going to the United States Air Force Academy rather than West Point. And — not because I wrote the letter to the wrong place, it just worked out better that way. But I was always thinking one to whom much is given much is also expected. And I think about the public sector and citizenry and that whole rubric in terms of what is the obligation that I have, that my family has, that my town has, that we as society have to ensure that we can have a civilization, that we can have a society.
MS. TIPPETT: So, Nancy, I think you offered an interesting frame for where we are now. There’s an Association for Psychological Science profile of you, and they talked about how you’re revered in that field for your work on how we perceive our social environments, pursue goals, and adapt to changing and challenging social settings. And I think certainly the language of changing and challenging social settings applies to the field of education as it does to many of our fields right now. You’ve also said, along those lines, “Pardon me if, as a psychologist, I say that an existential identity crisis” — you’re talking about an existential identity crisis for education — “every so often isn’t such a bad thing for growth and creativity.”
DR. CANTOR: The Sarah Lawrence girl in me.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, I do think that it’s instinctive a lot of times to fret about what is difficult and needs fixing and is falling apart and needs reconstructing and we don’t know how to do that. But I like that positive framing of the existential identity crisis that forces us to creativity.
DR. CANTOR: Absolutely. So, I think one of the things that we gravitate to too quickly is really the status quo, in all its richness. I mean, that is, we have norms and traditions and tasks and cultures and ways of being that are useful, they’re adaptive. They let us do things by default. But the fact of the matter is default doesn’t always work, right? And default doesn’t always bring everybody to the table. So, you know, maybe again it goes back to the period I grew up in. But it was a period of churning that really put things on their heads. I mean, so the freedom rides really were a way of saying, at least as — when I was growing up, it was a way of saying, “Stop and look and change.”
When I think of social psychology, I think of people’s ability to adapt not by accepting, but by pushing back, by a tug-of-war between individuals and environments, between groups. It’s not a placid sort of way of taking things. And if education means anything, it means to cultivate intelligence, to cultivate a social cohesion and a social spirit, to cultivate that civility you were talking about. So, to do that, you have to have an active stance to the world, and that’s the existential crisis in it. Questioning is, of course, at the heart of education, it’s at the heart of learning. But it’s not just questioning because you can have the answer, it’s questioning itself as a process is good, good for us. And we got a lot of questioning to do right now in the world.
DR. HOWARD: You know, Nancy, when I was teaching at the University of Oklahoma in the honors college, we had — I’d like to say we had a great books class — it was more great paragraphs. We didn’t read the whole book, but we read really important paragraphs.
But we wrestled with the great conversation of civilization. We really put it in the — I love your word churn. It was a blender, it was a beating up of ideas. And we had people coming from all different political backgrounds and a very intimate learning environment, a very liberal education experience on a public university campus, and we questioned what we valued and we respected each other. And it was a very, very civil place for us to disagree. And so — to your point — I just wanted to, just to indemnify and support your point to saying that the classroom, the institutions of higher learning, have a unique opportunity to do what you just described.
DR. CANTOR: Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, and this may seem like a simple point, but sometimes it’s worth saying the simplest things — our educational institutions are the places in the society where we learn to ask good questions, where we cultivate that particular skill.
DR. CANTOR: But I guess one thing I would push back on that is that when we say that, we often think of the classroom in a cloistered sense.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. CANTOR: You know, that you have to step back from the world to ask good questions, to be able to do the civil conversation we’re talking about. I think the real task right now is to do that in the world.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. CANTOR: So that the classroom becomes the world, the world becomes the classroom. I mean, that sounds so cliché, but it’s …
MS. TIPPETT: Right, no, but I guess what I’m saying is also to — but to send students out into the world who are good askers of better questions.
DR. CANTOR: But send students out when they’re still students…
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
DR. CANTOR: …is what I’m saying.
DR. HOWARD: We had a board meeting recently and I had a board member say something about our athletic program. And he said that basically a lot of the learning in student life can happen in the athletic program when done properly. It doesn’t — to your point, Nancy — have to be in the wonderful, wood-paneled, cloistered room. Things — and the tools out there that weren’t as evident, at least even when I was student at the Air Force Academy in the late ’80s, early ’90s, experiential learning, service learning.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. HOWARD: They’d been around, but I think they’re much more a part of our vernacular. I’ll add one other piece. What you’re hearing now about getting it right in student life, which is a proxy for the real world, was a proxy for civilization — is just thinking about upstander versus bystander, right? So, how do you get someone to …
MS. TIPPETT: What’d you say? “Upstander”?
DR. HOWARD: Upstander as opposed to being a bystander.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. HOWARD: It’s sort of intuitive. But a lot of times things are happening on a campus. And it’s not that you, that a student thinks it’s the right thing, but how can he or she actually be an upstander and try to address it, to be in the world, to bring those values of the civilization right there in the dorm room and the fraternity house or what have you. But that’s something that’s relatively new and it can be just as powerful as what you’re learning in that calculus class or in that political science class. And actually, to tell the truth, there’s a seamless web, when done properly, that runs through all those experiences that makes you a better citizen in the polis.
DR. CANTOR: Exactly. And, you know, we have to teach ourselves and our students that we’re real people. We forget that.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, and also there’s a line in the academy. It’s hard, right? There’s a boundary that has prevailed…
DR. CANTOR: There is.
MS. TIPPETT: …and that’s …
DR. CANTOR: And we got to push against that boundary. Again, it’s about the status quo. Do you take that boundary as a given or do you say we’re in a seamless relationship in the world?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. CANTOR: We have a phrase in Newark of saying that anchor institutions, universities as anchor institutions, are not just in their community, they’re of their community.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. CANTOR: So, my favorite quote on that, and it’s very much what Chris is saying, was from Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who gave the speech right before Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington. He was a great rabbi in Newark at the time. And he said, “look, being a neighbor is not just a term. It’s not a geographic term, it’s a moral concept.” What does that mean when we think about education? What if we really thought that being of a community — not just happenstance located in the community — was a moral construct about collective responsibility? It wasn’t just that you happened to be there geographically. It was that you were interdependent with community.
I mean, when we talk about issues of race or ethnicity or class or gender, sexuality on campuses and how hard it is to adjudicate that conflict, why do we always think about doing it in and of ourselves? Why don’t we do it in community and of community, so that we can see the different faces of these issues?
[music: “Singular” by Ryan Teague]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, in a live civil conversation on higher education and civil society. I’m with Rutgers University–Newark chancellor Nancy Cantor, and Christopher Howard, the president of Hampden–Sydney College of Virginia.
[music: “Singular” by Ryan Teague]
MS. TIPPETT: Chris, I want to talk a little bit — you are in such an interesting place from which to be observing and participating in this. The slogan of your college is “Forming good men and good citizens since 1776.”
DR. HOWARD: Exactly, right.
MS. TIPPETT: Which you can’t beat. But what an interesting perspective you have as the first African-American president of an all-male school, and an all-male school that is predominantly white.
DR. HOWARD: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And in some ways, even the “all-male” part of it feels as old-fashioned as anything else. So, talk to us about what you’re learning and also how …
DR. HOWARD: Yeah, it is a wonderful opportunity. It is an extraordinarily American place. It has literally — it was November — you took a year off — November 11, 1775 was when the first classes were offered at Hampden–Sydney College, and it has traced the arc and trajectory of American history, because it’s been there during the American Revolution. We had two or three students that perished in the American Revolution, because the school is actually older than America. And it’s gone all the way through the Civil War, and both the World Wars, and the Civil Rights Movement. And then to have a president who happens to look like me leading a place that happens to be predominantly white. So the arc of progress — and Dr. King’s, you know, “the arc of history bends toward justice.” And I guess I’m justice. I guess just call me justice. But …
MS. TIPPETT: It’s kind of a big responsibility. [laughs]
DR. HOWARD: That’s a very big responsibility. But nonetheless that is a — it’s a beautiful thing about America because, you know, I didn’t choose myself. The wonderful ladies and gentlemen on the board who are coming from, primarily, a very Southern tradition saw this as an opportunity. So, I love that aspect.
MS. TIPPETT: I just want to say that — the ceremony took place at the Commonwealth Club in Richmond, Virginia. A club which, for most of its history, had only admitted whites and you’re standing before a portrait of Jefferson Davis.
DR. HOWARD: Yes. And a board member said, “Dr. Howard, you do know you’re standing in front of a picture of Jefferson Davis as you accept the presidency of Hampden–Sydney College?” I go, “It’s OK. I said hello to Robert E. Lee on the way in.”
So, it’s not a problem for me. But that’s, I mean, that’s who we are. I mean, you’re talking about — it’s not easy, Nancy …
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Well, and the fact that they chose you says something about who they are and who they want to be as well.
DR. HOWARD: I think so, I think so. And, again, I’m such a humble part of this whole thing that is America. I mean, it’s sort of a cliché, Krista. But I love this cliché, that — we talked about my origins, the origins of the institution. And that we can remake our self and redo our self and have these existential crises that Nancy has pointed out. You know, so much of your life is dictated by your zip code. And what kind of society or citizenry or civilization can we have if you can just say you come from this zip code, ergo your life is going to end up at name the top institution, name the top job or whatever, perceived job, what have you. What does that mean for those that are not in?
And I like what Nancy said. She’s coming from a public university. I’m coming from a private institution. We have common cause here. You talk about the common place, the commons. I love those terms. We have common cause here, because if we don’t do it right, if we don’t extend ourselves, if we don’t get uncomfortable, it’s not going to change. It’s never going to get better.
MS. TIPPETT: So, would you say — I just have to say, as we’re speaking on it, I’m really curious about what you’re all thinking and what you’d like to ask. So, we’ll just talk for a few more minutes up here and then we’ll open it up. I wonder if, before we do that, if you would both say a little bit about what you’re involved in in your institution, how you’re being able to apply this vision in your very different contexts. So, why don’t you start, Chris?
DR. HOWARD: Sure. I’m happy to. So, again, we have the luxury of being sort of older than America and we have a lot of the luminaries of American …
DR. CANTOR: The burden or the luxury.
DR. HOWARD: The burden and the luxury, right? It’s like the president of William and Mary said — Taylor Reveley, whose father ran Hampden–Sydney and actually segregated — integrated it, excuse me — but he had said the best thing about William and Mary is they’re, like, you know, 400 years. The worst thing about William and Mary is they’re 400 years old.
DR. HOWARD: So, you know how that goes.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. HOWARD: But we have an institute center at Hampden–Sydney College called the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I noticed that.
DR. HOWARD: This is interesting, Krista. So, leadership in the public interest. And this guy Sam Wilson was a guy who, at age 16, went to — when Churchill gave his famous speech, the call to armor for Britain, this guy walked ten miles — you can’t make this stuff up — walked ten miles or 12 miles and lied about his age, volunteered for the National Guard, ended up being the youngest army officer in World War II, was one of Merrill’s Marauders, went all the way up, became a three-star general — never went to college. Came back and became the president of Hampden–Sydney College, because he’s from Rice, right down the road. And he pushed for this thing about leadership and citizenry.
One our most popular centers, it is the embodiment of a lot of things you’re talking about. We’re doing experiential learning, service learning, courses that touch on constitutional law, along with our government and foreign affairs department and it’s just — our ROTC program’s there.
MS. TIPPETT: So, the college is predominantly — at 93 percent white?
DR. HOWARD: It was.
MS. TIPPETT: Was?
DR. HOWARD: When I showed up, it was. About 20 percent non-white male now.
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
DR. HOWARD: It was about seven percent when I arrived.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve also talked about — Hampden–Sydney at one point was known as a finishing school for Southern gentlemen. But I really like the way you talk about the word “gentleman.” You say the operative word is “gentle” man. Would you talk a little bit about how you — what that means for you and how you’re implementing that as part of culture?
DR. HOWARD: Sure. And I’ll talk a little bit probably about humility as well. So, the term “gentleman” is problematic amongst many people. It conjures up something that sounds very old-fashioned and you feel like you should have a glass of lemonade and a big, long, white bib and, you know, it just doesn’t quite fly, especially a lot with our faculty members. But this whole idea of a “gentle man,” which means that you don’t intentionally do something to harm others. So, to walk through life and not intentionally do harm to others is pretty cool. And I think that young men, they can get their minds around that. And so I like that.
And the whole idea is that we have these terms that have been around for a long time. How do we come up with a 3.0 or 4.0 version of them? They’re — some of these things, they should stay in our vernacular. Some of them should be thrown away…
MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.
DR. HOWARD: …you know, a long time ago. But some of these things should be upgraded, updated and upgraded. And I like doing that with our folks on our campus. And I think the thing about humility — my last point about humility — is I talked to my students, and to my two sons — I’ll say things like, “You know, I have been 20, you have never been 46.”
You know, I’ve seen some stuff that you haven’t seen. So, when we take our respective roles as chancellors and presidents, as parents, as citizens, we got to be humble because there’s so much that we just don’t know. A law of unintended consequences, etc. And so I think that’s a good virtue I guess for us to live by in this wonderful world we live in together.
DR. CANTOR: Absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: Nancy, I wonder if you would just talk a little bit about the work you did in Syracuse. Which — I think you’re building that and kind of taking what you learn there to Newark — but very much kind of a very serious, in-depth, multi-year project and really giving legs to this idea about connecting the educational institution to the world around it.
DR. CANTOR: I don’t actually like the word “service” learning, because it connotes a kind of one-way street of altruism as opposed to a genuine, collaborative relationship and engagement. But the key phrase is humility. And, let’s face it, universities are not great at being humble, right? This does not come naturally to us. And what we took as principles in Syracuse, and we definitely take in Newark — although every place is its own, so we do the work differently — is that our role was to be a collaborator with a community of experts, some with pedigree and some not. I learned more from the wisest grandmother in the ninth poorest census tract in the Near Westside of Syracuse when she said, “Nancy, ask us. We lay our head down here at night.”
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, so my question was how did you, what was the structure by which you created a relationship so that you were listening to her and she could speak her truth to you?
DR. CANTOR: Yes. So, what we did is we created in Syracuse — in the Near Westside of Syracuse — a 501(c)(3) through which everything flowed. So, it was heavily dominated by residents, by the local parish priest, who was the best activist on the face of the earth, by business people, by local government, by deans and faculty and students and artists, and residents, residents, residents. They had control. It was democracy in action. It was incredibly messy.
MS. TIPPETT: What was the 501(c)(3) called?
DR. CANTOR: It was called the Near Westside Initiative or the SALT District, for Syracuse Arts, Literacy, and Technology District. A playback to Syracuse having been a salt industry center. The key thing for sustenance and sustaining this work is that we are one of many communities of experts. We are on the ground, one among many. I really believe that the best thing universities can do is create third spaces of collaboration for our students, for our faculty, for our staff and, most importantly, for our citizens. And for everybody around. Places where people genuinely come without pedigree, even with pedigree. And that is not easy. And that goes back to humility.
[music: “Armenian Folk Songs (The Partridge)” by Brooklyn Rider]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Nancy Cantor and Christopher Howard through our website, onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Armenian Folk Songs (The Partridge)” by Brooklyn Rider]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today we’re exploring the evolving place of institutions of higher education in the communities they inhabit, and in nurturing their students as citizens and leaders for the emerging 21st-century world. I’m with two visionary college presidents of two very different colleges. Christopher Howard is the first African-American president of an historically white all male school in the South: Hampden–Sydney College of Virginia. Nancy Cantor is chancellor of a large public university in the Northeast, Rutgers University–Newark, one of the most diverse institutions in the U.S. And we’re with a live audience at the American Council on Education’s 97th Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
MS. TIPPETT: Let’s open this up. Here’s a microphone.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Thank you. Kevin Snider from Penn State New Kensington. You know, in many societies, some of the societal shifts in civil society come from the students. It’s almost kind of ground up. And here, if there’s a generation of students that ought to be voicing and questioning — back to your original opening statement there — you’d think it’d be this generation, where wages are stagnant, the amount that the public is investing in their education is going down drastically and putting a burden on their backs, the benefits they can enjoy when they graduate and get jobs are going to be dramatically reduced. It just seems like they should be rising up more than they are — voting, demonstrating, things like that.
And so, sometimes, when I talk to these students, there’s almost a sense of not even being interested, and I’m wondering if we’re doing something wrong. And I’m wondering if you might have some ideas about what’s happening here and what our role should be in this environment?
DR. CANTOR: So, to me, there’s sort of two pieces to that. One is if we’re doing something wrong, it goes back to, ironically, in my view, the narrow careerism of our approach. So, we operate from the notion that jobs are hard to get and, therefore, what that then seems to equal is that education has to be narrower and narrower to be better for those jobs, when in fact what we know — and surveys of corporate leaders all over the country and the world say this — is that education actually has to be broader and broader to incite and excite the next diverse generation who will in fact turn things around. We know that innovation comes from diversity, and yet we don’t spend the time getting that mix of perspectives that would get the excitement going that you’re talking about.
The other quick thing I would say, and then turn to Chris, is that actually I think our students are deeply engaged in the world and want to be. I just think we have to value it. It’s often the faculty and the administration that are pulling back and narrowing the sights of those students.
DR. HOWARD: I think that, to your point, Nancy, you see hyper-engagement. But the thing is they engage differently than we did. There was an article in The Economist a couple of issues ago that said that, you know, “the death of the protest.” You know, even the Wall Street thing a couple of years ago. It’s just — it’s not like it was in the ’60s and ’70s. You think about the Selma march, you mention the freedom buses and what have you — Freedom Riders, excuse me. That is not the way it’s going down now, even though, as this gentleman pointed out, society — young people may feel some sort of similar types of pressures on them. So, we have to indemnify, expect, and respect that they’re going about it differently.
I’ll make one final point on this. The idea of the citizen sector — Peter Drucker talked about the citizen sector — the proliferation of the 501(c)(3)s. First off, that’s a unique thing in America. That you can pretty much hang your shingle and say — and as long as you convince the IRS and the secretary of state in your state — I’m going to hang my shingle and I’m going to go after that problem. The number of young people that found 501(c)(3)s, probably because of the technology …
DR. CANTOR: Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s a really fascinating point. It’s a very different form that this is taking.
DR. CANTOR: But it’s just as vibrant.
DR. HOWARD: It is vibrant, and it makes sense for their generation and how they do things. And you know, I’ve sat on the selection committee for the Rhodes scholarship a couple times. And it’s kind of surprising when kids don’t, when they haven’t started a 501(c)(3) than when they have started a 501(c)(3). You know, “How old are you again? Fifteen, really? When did you start this thing?” So, I just think they’re doing it differently. And so we need to respect that, indemnify that, and support it.
MS. TIPPETT: Down here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: In an age of evidence, what are the metrics around civic engagement that we as leaders can take back out into our communities to talk about success and to talk about — and to motivate our students to take this as part of their repertoire into the future? Because they’ve experienced the transformation of any particular problem by virtue of applying to it. So, it’s not only about the money-making opportunities. It’s about that satisfaction level and it’s about measuring it for communities so that, once again, as we start to answer the question and compile the metrics around why a college education — why, especially, a residential college education — how do we make our case for adding to that civic engagement in a large and very diverse way?
DR. HOWARD: So, one of the things that I’ve been doing with young people as I’ve — either as a mentor when I was in industry, and in the military, and nonprofit, and now as an educator — is that I want them to have a sense of agency. And you can probably distill in some metrics, but I’m going to be a little bit more spiritual about it. So, when people on our campus, students on our campus want to do something, I like to make sure that our administration, our faculty, our alumni help them do that. Because I want them to know that if they do A — and it’s not against the law — that B could happen, right? And I think in terms of civic engagement, stepping into your community, you want people in a school system that’s not working well to run for a school board or to do something to effect change in that school system when they graduated from an institution to make a difference. You want them to do the same thing with — maybe a corporation as misappropriating land or something like that. You want them to be able to say I can do something about this, or even inside the firm themselves. They can be working for a company and say I want to — this is not right and — not out of hubris, but out of responsibility — make a change.
And that’s agency. Agency, agency, agency. And getting that in a more macro level or making sure that we, as a society, are marching in the right direction and knowing that we’re having progress. Probably people that are better at that than I am, but I do know that in my gut that that’s what I want. I want men and women to walk off a campus and be able to know that if they do A, they can have B happen and make it have some input and control. Because a lot of places in the world, people just don’t have that. They simply do not have any sense of agency and they think — they don’t think they’re ever going to get it.
[music: “Recover” by Mice Parade]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, in a live Civil Conversation on higher education and civil society. I’m with Rutgers University–Newark chancellor Nancy Cantor, and Christopher Howard, the president of Hampden–Sydney College of Virginia.
[music: “Recover” by Mice Parade]
MS. TIPPETT: One more question. Here’s one.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. About 200 universities, a million students around the country. In the short description the sentence read: “A robust civility to bridge rather than deepen differences.” When you look at higher education, what is one experience or model on a university campus that you’ve seen where you actually have robust civility — conversation — that helps this generation understand how to build bridges instead of dividing? What does it physically look like in your experience?
DR. CANTOR: So, I’ll give you two. I always go back to the arts as a fundamental bridge of civil communication that levels the playing field like nothing else and very quickly. So, in Syracuse we did a project on literacy and photography, again, in that same neighborhood I was talking about, a multigenerational project. And the narrative-making and the voice that came forth from all directions, not to mention the extraordinarily beautiful photography and poetry that was written by kids who are otherwise written off by higher education in communities that don’t get noticed that often, and the integration of Syracuse University students with these kids was an absolute slam-dunk leveler and builder of civic bridges.
The second thing I would say is a more formal, typical, if you will, but incredibly important notion of intergroup dialogue. Pat Gurin’s work at Michigan that has been done on many campuses around the country is extraordinary structured intergroup dialogue led by very, very trained facilitators, where vulnerabilities get brought to the table on all sides unexpectedly, and it’s those vulnerabilities, once expressed, that actually create the civic bridge.
DR. HOWARD: That’s a wonderful phrase, “the civic bridge,” also. That’s a 501(c)(3) waiting to happen right there.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s right. It is.
DR. HOWARD: The Civic Bridge, I heard it first here.
DR. CANTOR: That’s my civil infrastructure.
DR. HOWARD: So, I would piggyback on what Nancy said in terms of the dialogue piece. And so this, borrowing a note from the faith side — we’re a Presbyterian university or college, at least those are our roots, and so this comes from a concept that might be near and dear to you as someone who’s coming from faith-based colleges and universities. And this is vocational reflection or discernment. “What am I called to be?”
And so we have a sophomore vocational reflection project. The last couple of years, from day one, we’ve been asking our students — literally, the first talk I give to them — what is your purpose, passion, and calling in life? And the answer is, “I’m clueless,” I say, “Join the club!” And we’ve been kind of creating exercises and programs that, culminating in their sophomore year, where they have a sophomore reflection dialogue around the table with a trained moderator — a faculty or staff member. And we also lay on top of the purpose, passion, and calling in life: “What does it mean to be a good man” — or good men, actually — “in 2015?” So, this is where being an all-male institution plays to an advantage because we were able to get to a point of vulnerability pretty quickly.
So, we did this — I think, the first time we did it, a group of sophomores had dinner at my house and I was at our table and about ten students were around the table, and had dinner. We went around and I said “Who are you?” And one kid said “I’m weird.” And another kid said that “I want to be Pericles. I want to bring truth to the people.” And went around — one kid talked about wanting to be there for others. And as the dialogue progressed, one young man talked about his life and coming up in very horrific circumstances in Appalachia America, foster care when his parents died, a sibling who killed herself, drug addiction. I almost want to cry talking about it. So, these young men, who didn’t know each other terribly well — it was randomly generated, they’re in the same class, were all sophomores — we’re creating this civic and civil bridge with their own personal experiences and points of vulnerability, just talking around a table over pizza, right? And then we’ve come up with other programs to keep that going. But by the end they were all cheering for each other to be successful. You know, “It’s OK that you’re weird. And it’s OK that you’ve gone through this, and it’s great that you want to be Pericles. I know what you mean by that.” And so that was a very powerful part. And it speaks to your dialogue piece. It’s very, very useful.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m in radio, so I know what a hard stop is, and it’s a hard stop. But I’m just going to ask one more quick question. Before I do that, I want to say that another way I think we diminish the notion of civil discourse is we tend to invoke and call for it when things have gotten really bad and when there’s a fight. And I think that robust civil discourse is also about putting words, putting generative, imagination-opening words around things we don’t even quite know how to talk about yet. And there are so many of those right now.
And I feel like so many things surfaced in this conversation that I hadn’t heard before. And I do again feel like maybe part of the task is to — the story you just told, Chris, or your story, Nancy, about creating an experience where people can be vulnerable. These things have civic effect and they shape our capacity to be in the world effectively. And somehow, I think, part of the task is to create that metric-sounding language that can put these things on a different platform.
So I want to thank you for this. I guess, just very finally, very quickly — you know, in my show I’ll often ask at the end through all of the experiences you’ve had and what we’ve been talking about, how have you, how has your sense of what it means to be human evolved? And with this conversation in mind that we just had about education and humanity and connecting who we are and who the world is, both institutionally and personally, how would you answer that question — what you’ve learned about what it means to be an educated human being.
DR. CANTOR: So, I think what I would say is what I’ve learned is to look beneath the surface. That we are so quick to assume we understand what’s there and not to really look for what can be there. And that education is about what can be there.
DR. HOWARD: Education is a lifelong process. This is a film, not a snapshot. So, when I was in flight school as an Air Force officer, I had a classmate named Mark and his wife was Kathy. He was an Army reservist. I was an Air Force officer. We were going to Fort Rucker helicopter training. And we would have these long talks about the Civil War and what it meant to society in America and the role of the Confederacy in our history.
And he had had relatives that had fought what I like to call the losing side. I’m just saying. They did lose. A point of fact, some of my friends forget that, but nonetheless. But we have these very — and I’m a trained military guy and so I knew the stories of the Confederate generals and understood where he was coming from. We had these great conversations. And then when we finished up flight school, my wife and our — we only had one son at the time — went down to Disney World. We got some pretty cheap tickets off of the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation office at Fort Rucker. We drive down to Tampa to stay with him because we’re going to go to Disney World in Orlando the next day.
So, we show up with our four-year-old son. My wife being a colored — so-called colored, from South Africa, who had grew up in apartheid South Africa, by the way — we knock on the door. Kathy’s there. She opens the door. Mark’s there. We give them a hug. He’s also a state trooper. We talk for a few minutes. It’s rather late. We go into the bedroom, and on his bed there were a couple of pillows and they were Confederate flag pillows. They were of the Confederate flag. And this is interesting. He takes the pillows and he puts them in a chest, he and his wife, and they make the bed for us, because it was a small apartment. And we stayed in their bed. They stayed somewhere else. It wasn’t that kind of a story. They stayed someplace else.
But what was interesting is that I thought that that is the best of a civil relationship, right, in so many ways. I know how some of you are laughing trying to get your mind around this. But think about it though. He did not run and hide that. We talked about what it meant to him. I understood that and I respected that. I didn’t, you know, a lot of people — it would have turned out very differently if a lot of other people of color had showed up at the door. But it was not that. It was us. It was Mark and Kathy and Barbara and Chris and Cohen and we knew each other. And we took time to respect our respective points of view, which allowed us to have a deep relationship.
And so that’s the story that I use. It kind of speaks to some of the things you’re speaking to. And so …
MS. TIPPETT: It’s about living with.
DR. HOWARD: Living with, living with.
MS. TIPPETT: Thank you, Chris and Nancy. And thank you all for coming.
[music: “Collide Us” by Signal Hill]
MS. TIPPETT: Nancy Cantor is the chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark. Chris Howard is president of Hampden–Sydney College of Virginia.
[music: “Collide Us” by Signal Hill]
MS. TIPPETT: A note of remembrance this week: Grace Lee Boggs died on October 5 at the age of 100. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was a philosopher, a social visionary, a civil rights legend. In recent years, she became a force for renewal against the odds in post-industrial Detroit. She said, “Our right, our duty, is to shape the world with a new dream, to rebuild, redefine and re-spirit our city.” We visited Grace Lee Boggs in 2011 at her home in Detroit, and you can hear that conversation on our website, onbeing.org.
[music: “Collide Us” by Signal Hill]
MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Nicki Oster, Michelle Keeley, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Tony Birleffi, Marie Sambilay, and Hannah Rehak.
Special thanks this week to Louis Soares, Nicole Woods, and the rest of the staff at the American Council on Education.
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