Op-ed: Six Indiana college presidents choose dialogue over divisiveness

If the United States is truly exceptional in the nature of its political divide, as recent studies by the Pew Research Center suggest, the leaders of Indiana’s historic peace colleges may have discovered a path forward.

One silver lining of a year marked by disease, violence, and isolation has been the enduring bond I have forged with leaders of five other Indiana colleges. Aside from our professional roles, we are an otherwise unlikely group, representing a spectrum of political values and religious beliefs. In the narrative of a polarized America, this should make us a powder keg waiting to explode.

Except we haven’t. And it has made us better at what we do, particularly as we navigate a pandemic that has entered its second year and continues to complicate our plans for commencement and the fall 2021 semester.

As our differences arise — and they do — we’re reminded of our institutions’ shared values of peace, non-violence and respect for persons. Five of the six colleges were founded by historic peace churches — Quaker, Brethren and Mennonite — and those founding values continue to inform our campus culture and our individual work. It is a complicated proposition, and it’s a lesson we are constantly promoting to our campus communities — and reminding ourselves. Divisive language, often in the name of politics, can escalate conflict and become symbolic of everything we fundamentally oppose.

When non-violent dialogue and peace are shared values, then you can talk openly about difficult subjects. And we have. Like making budget cuts. Or asking faculty to do more with less. Or dealing with the pain of losing a student to the pandemic like one of us did late last year.

We meet every Tuesday night via Zoom, a tradition that began with an invitation by Manchester University President David McFadden. Others in the group are Rebecca Stoltzfus, president of Goshen College; Bill Katip, president of Grace College and Seminary; Sherilyn Emberton, president of Huntington University; and Karl Einolf, president of Indiana Institute of Technology.

It was intended to be a leadership book club of sorts, and as a new college president, I eagerly accepted Dave’s invitation. We started reading Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territories. However, as the pandemic began to sweep through the country, conversations drifted away from the book and toward the shared challenges facing our campus communities.

We have grown accustomed to using each other as a sounding board for our questions about testing, vaccines and reopening strategies. Or how to respond to alumni who question our priorities, or assure worried parents that their students would be safe on our campuses.

Concerned about the impact that the pandemic would have on our enrollment, I sought advice from the group on how to encourage faculty to develop new majors and minors — without adding additional personnel — that could help us broaden our appeal to potential students, a need that started before the pandemic and intensified as a result.

The group was a touchstone as we lived through — and responded to — history. Together, we weathered a summer filled with violence and protests, a fall marked by one of the most contentious elections in the history of our country, and January’s fractious transition of power in Washington. More important, we engaged in dialogue around these events, each of us trying to gain a deeper understanding of other perspectives, each of us respecting those differences — especially when they made us uncomfortable or challenged our own worldview.

This is the transformative power of higher education in action. This is what we need more of now — in our families, in our hometowns, in our state and in our country. Peaceful dialogue. Non-violent language. An openness to being wrong. Conversation with the intent of building understanding and working toward the truth. We don’t have to agree with someone’s politics to achieve this. We just need to agree to come together to talk, to listen, to respect and to reflect.

Anne M. Houtman is the president of Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion