In a time of dramatic challenge, the country needs vision and ideas about the future of the nation, but it's not coming from electoral politics this year. The Pew Research Center reports that "for the first time in more than two decades, a majority of voters express dissatisfaction with their choices for president this Fall." NBC News discussions with swing voters about the election produced terms like "skunk," "rotten eggs," and "garbage."
In such a context, can college and university presidents become "philosophers of possibility," leaders in catalyzing discussion and action about education and a good society? According to a recent study by Gallup and Lumina, nearly everyone - 96% -- believes that "it is somewhat or very important for adults to have a degree or personal certificate beyond high school." Eighty percent also believe that colleges and universities must change to meet the needs of today's students.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, helping to lead a multi-stakeholder project on the future of the Virgin River in Utah, Katrina Rogers had an epiphany. "It was very contentious," she describes. "We had different stakeholders -- Native Americans, conservative rural Mormon communities, environmentalists, the US National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Reclamation. I came in representing one of the environmental groups, the Grand Canyon Trust, and naively thought that if we all get together and talk we'll come up with a solution."
She learned from the experience the importance of dialogue, and also that it is not a simple process.
Rogers found that "you have to be engaged for the long term," not simply show up. The field of democratic engagement and conflict resolution has crucial insights, like finding common interests and the craft of negotiation. "Most important, I discovered the importance of language," she says. Divisions about the river's future were bitter - at one point the town of Virgin passed a law barring environmentalists. "In Mormon communities you can't talk about the fish," she discovered. "You have to talk about history, heritage, stewardship and protection. These are the important values."
Katrina Rogers also realized how few people have skills for such work. Education institutions, with vast multiplier impacts across society because of their formative role in developing leaders, potentially play a vital part. But today colleges and universities, in her view, "are thin on the ground in helping people make the link between the knowledge they accrue and their broader social obligations. The democratic process is usually relegated to voting a few times a year. People don't learn to think about their role as citizen actors."
Rogers had earlier experience in higher education when she led the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Geneva, Switzerland, for nearly a decade. She was also a Fulbright scholar in Germany. Her realizations in the Virgin River effort led her to Fielding, first as the associate dean of the School of Human and Organizational Development, then as provost and finally as president in 2013. "I began to think, What is my responsibility as an intellectual? As a scholarly president?"
In her experience, a president has to be brave to take public leadership. "There are trends that make it difficult for presidents to take on the part of a public intellectual, which was much more common in previous decades. For example, 13% of presidents don't come from any academic background and that percentage is increasing. They may be capable, but they're not socialized in the culture." Further, the demands of the presidency make it difficult to develop a strong public voice. "The pressure on most presidents is to spend almost all their time on fundraising."
Rogers decided to experiment. "I failed at some things and other things have worked better." For example, Fielding has an institutional commitment to social and ecological justice. When the Occupy Movement emerged, she posted a statement of support on the website. "I received some acclaim and some critique from community members who pointed out that there is a difference between taking a stand as an individual as opposed to as an institution."
This July, Rogers reemphasized the importance of well-crafted dialogue in the midst of the avalanche of news about police shootings of black men and the killings of police officers. Many Americans wonder if deepening fractures along racial lines can be reversed.
She invited the Fielding community -- faculty, students, staff, alumni, trustees -- to online discussions titled "Conversation on the University's Role in Addressing Racial Injustice" over the summer. These discussions have attracted strong interest from Fielding community members, not only to host ongoing dialogues, but also to continue advance the own understanding as graduate learners and educators.
The conversation was often emotional, as she imagined it would be. Some participants angrily denounced police. Others who worked with police departments described the enormous pressures on police and the often invisible stress and depression. Several pointed to successful initiatives in improving relationships between police and African-American communities. Many had ideas for follow-up action by the Fielding community, such as research and developing knowledge about successful strategies for change from the US and abroad.
The Fielding community agreed it was important to have spaces where such conversation can take place, leading to action. Rogers believes that "people are hungry for spaces like this that are inviting, where people can be themselves and think and learn with others in more complex ways than polarization allows us to do." She also thinks that the context of deepening polarization presents major challenges. As just one example, she says, "Social media allows us to opt out of interaction with any group that doesn't agree with us."
Dialogue is crucial for democracy itself, Rogers notes. "People need hope and the sense that they're not helpless," she concludes. "Dialogue can be a path to agency."
Harry Boyte, Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at Augsburg College, is an advisor to the College Presidents' Initiative of the Kettering Foundation.