As we navigate the many challenges and uncertainties of our current moment the role that leaders in higher education play can make all the difference in terms of encouraging and modeling how to have meaningful conversations across differences. Below we reproduce for you a letter that Ronald Crutcher, President of the University of Richmond, and a valued member of Heterodox Academy’s Advisory Council, shared with his University community. His call to center “our common humanity,” especially when engaging with people who hold views that differ from ours, serves as a most timely reminder for us all.
Dear Members of the University Community,
We are experiencing an academic year unlike any other, with a global health crisis, a severe economic downturn, widespread civil rights activism, and a very contentious election season. The tenor of our current political discourse has been a stark reminder of how polarized we have become and has undoubtedly sown deeper division in our country.
It is entirely likely that in the days and weeks to come we will find ourselves at odds with one another as our beliefs and opinions conflict. That is to be expected. Yet, I also believe this moment invites us to forge an even stronger Spider community. Today, I write to encourage all Spiders to live our shared values and resist the indignities of polarization so that we may demonstrate anew that we are a community committed to upholding the dignity and worth of each individual.
Spiders represent many backgrounds, identities, experiences, and ideologies, mirroring our nation and increasingly our world. This rich diversity ensures all members will at times encounter viewpoints that challenge their own. Such encounters should be welcomed; they offer us the chance to better understand why others think and believe as they do. To successfully navigate our differences, however, our goal must not be to land a rhetorical punch, lay blame, or shame. Such practices are antithetical to our values and only perpetuate the vicious cycle of recriminations that have become all too common in our society.
Instead, and especially as we approach the upcoming election, I encourage our community to center ideas, to ask probing questions of one other, to listen deeply, and to remember that your own experience is not necessarily that of others. We must all strive to cultivate these skills; respectful disagreement is a core component of both learning and responsible citizenship in our pluralistic democracy. If we can navigate our differences with a curious mind and demonstrate patience, discipline, empathy, and intellect — the building blocks of civility — I am confident we will emerge from this turbulent time as a stronger community. I encourage you to visit our We the People page for ways to participate in dialogues and discussions aimed at helping all of us better understand what makes a healthy democracy. Please also consider attending virtually the Sharp Viewpoint Speakers Series, where we seek to model substantive disagreement and dialogue. Finally, remember to make a plan to vote!
One of my role models, the Rev. Peter Marshall, who served as Chaplain of the United States Senate, once said, “A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.” I encourage you all to continue your political learning and engagement. What I aim to do personally, and what I ask of all of us, is to recognize our common humanity and engage one another with civility, energy, and substance this election season and beyond. Together, we can strengthen our community and our democracy by living the motto, “Many Spiders, One Web.”
Take care of yourselves and each other.
Ronald A. Crutcher
University of Richmond