Welcome to the Trust Lab

Our culture is awash in mistrust. The recent election has been called a referendum on mistrust of our government and institutions. In higher education, safe spaces, once a haven for discussion without fear of repercussions or judgment, are being vilified for coddling students and shutting down debate. And most disturbingly, a Pew Research Center report released just two years ago found that only 19 percent of millennials say that people can be trusted.

As the president of a small liberal arts college and the parent of four millennials, I find such news disheartening. Mistrust has the power to erode already fragile communal bonds. But after completing my first year as president at Ursinus College, I am finding that institutions like these are the best places to make inroads and rebuild trust. Let's investigate some the causes of the increase in mistrust and explore some possible solutions.

Robert Putnam writes in Bowling Alone that trust was highest in the America of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the era of the "silent majority." It's worth noting that this moment also marked the apogee of Cold War political rhetoric--even as Americans trusted each other, it seems, we simultaneously insulated ourselves against outsiders.

Such tension between insiders and outsiders, dominant and marginalized, has only increased with America's growing diversity. The Pew study notes that people of color and low-income individuals have lower levels of trust in others than the larger population. Economic challenges also contribute to the erosion of trust: young people today, many of whom leave college with substantial debt, witnessed the economic collapse of 2008 along with their parents. They worry, justifiably, about economic institutions like Social Security, which our peer group viewed as norms of American life. And with a more mobile society, young people have become less attached to social institutions, and more connected to a network of friends.

Sociologists of trust offer a slightly more sanguine view. As sociologist Pamela Paxton of the University of Texas has shown, the informal connections between people in small groups -- a community theatre troupe, a local tavern, a religious organization, or a club -- can strengthen social capital. Her research shows that participation in such groups can improve trust. Paradoxically, the comfort forged in a small group can transfer into the larger community.

Small colleges like Ursinus should function as trust labs, much like Paxton's neighborhood taverns, in that they promote informal, yet sustained, social relations. Like labs, they accommodate both experimentation and failure. In the residential small-college environment, we can test our assumptions about those who are different from ourselves, suspend our fear of conflict, and work creatively to find spaces of mutuality amongst our differences. Trust enables risk, and risk-taking is a first step in learning.

This isn't to suggest that small colleges like Ursinus are utopian idylls. They're far from it. Many small colleges have had challenges in the past year surrounding diversity, including our own. However, Ursinus faculty teaching in the unique Common Intellectual Experience at Ursinus -- in which first-year students are encouraged to seek thoughtful answers to questions like "How should we live our lives?"-- routinely find that students in their classes openly affirm their sexuality; share experiences of abuse, racism, and violations of consent; and willingly discuss their aspirations, frustrations, and fears. (Such honesty wasn't the norm in the classrooms of Robert Putnam's baby boomers.) Furthermore, Project Pericles, of which Ursinus is a founding member, promotes civic engagement, which demands trust between students, faculty, and the larger community. Faculty work to build trust in the classroom and cultivate it among their students. They believe, as I do, that our students' education depends on it.

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah of New York University writes that "humans live best on a smaller scale," that of "the county, the town, the street, the business, the craft, the profession, [and] the family," among others. In Appiah's view, the resilience individuals develop in such intimate environments -- their clarity of identity and purpose -- prepares them for the larger world. It is customary to describe colleges and universities as threshold spaces, settings in which students can experiment with a range of identities, positions, and beliefs. Simultaneously, we might view them as incubators of trust; while facilitating self-exploration, higher education must also work to strengthen our collective bonds.

Liberal education -- especially at the intimate scale of institutions like Ursinus -- can inoculate us against mistrust, even as it threatens to go viral.