The previous academic year was a difficult one on many college campuses, with a variety of conflicts over controversial speakers and controversial protest tactics, sometimes including students shouting down visiting speakers. Many students now say they are “walking on eggshells”, afraid to speak honestly, even in the classroom. But if students are no longer exposed to the words and ideas of people from across the political spectrum, this will make it harder for them to cope in the politically diverse world they’ll find after graduation.
In response to this problem, a group of politically diverse students came together to create BridgeUSA. At BridgeUSA, we believe a change in the culture of campus discourse cannot come solely from the top down – through University administrative policy changes, for example. It must emanate from the bottom-up; students must take the initiative to change their campus environment themselves. The issue in generating this student engagement is not a lack of numbers: the students disenchanted by current campus politics far outnumber those that have become the face of collegiate political discourse. The former group of students, however, rarely has the philosophical framework, resources or organizational know-how to address the problems on their campuses. This is where BridgeUSA comes in. We offer a framework for change that students can customize for their particular campus environment, and then we help students to implement this framework. We provide them with financial backing, personal mentorship, training in student organizing, leadership and coalition building, and connection to our national network.
BridgeUSA is not a ‘free speech’ organization. While we recognize the importance of free speech, the promotion of free speech in and of itself is not sufficient for changing the toxic political cultures on our campuses, and, at times, can be counterproductive. When confronted with alternate viewpoints, individuals often dismiss them outright or double-down on their existing beliefs rather than open up to these other views. This doesn’t mean that we at BridgeUSA do not promote freedom of expression and inquiry; instead, we work to create environments in which such speech fosters epistemic humility, broadens intellectual horizons, and generates genuine understanding. We do so by promoting viewpoint diversity, challenging student preconceptions and engaging in Responsible Discourse.
A primary goal of each and every BridgeUSA chapter is to expose students to a broader diversity of viewpoints than they might otherwise encounter on campus. At the University of Notre Dame, for example, our chapter hosted an event that brought various student leaders together to debatet the topic of immigration. In addition to College Democrats and Republicans giving their party platforms, GreeND (an environmental group) spoke about the potential of climate migration, Right to Life (the campus Pro-Life group) focused on the morality of the issue through a Catholic lens, Young Americans for Freedom (a right-wing, Libertarian group) evaluated the economic implications of immigration from a libertarian standpoint, and Students for Worker Justice (a left-leaning group focused on labor rights) on the working conditions for immigrants and the impact of immigration on low-wage workers and unions. Thus, students ultimately left the event with the understanding that immigration reform is a complex topic with various dimensions, awareness of viewpoints they had never considered, a will to obtain more information about the subject, and, perhaps most crucial of all, the realization that it is intellectually stimulating, even enjoyable, to think about issues in brand new ways.
In addition to just exposing students to a diversity of views, BridgeUSA creates environments in which students’ preconceptions are purposefully and constantly challenged by their peers. We pitch BridgeUSA to students as spaces where individuals can express their beliefs without fear of harassment or reprimand, but also where students can have the opportunity to challenge those views with which they disagree. This principle attracts students from across the political spectrum. Thus, BridgeUSA chapters are often the one place on campus where students from a diverse array of backgrounds and beliefs regularly engage openly with one another, creating an environment where students’ views are constantly challenged rather than affirmed. Over time, these spaces morph into flourishing communities of students who, despite being from all ends of political spectrum, come to view each other as partners in a common struggle against confirmation bias and the partisan tribalism that is growing so rapidly in much of our country.
However, these spaces do not simply exist as a free speech free-for-all. In order to prevent discourse in these spaces from breaking down into partisan attacks, mudslinging, or one-sided domination, we employ a framework for discussion known as Responsible Discourse. In our view, the right to free speech generates certain responsibilities for one’s discourse community. While many groups preach the idea of ‘civil’ discourse, we believe that the responsibilities extend far beyond mere civility. After all, we can be ‘civil’ but still utter falsities, ignore opposing views, and use ad hominem arguments. The right to voice our own beliefs comes with a greater set of responsibilities: to entertain critique and criticism of our beliefs, to actively listen to the opinions of others, to refrain from purposely distorting the truth for the sake of argument, and to avoid ad hominem attacks among others. This set of responsibilities is embedded into the structure of discourse for each BridgeUSA chapter.
Over the course of the last year, BridgeUSA chapters developed on four campuses: the University of Notre Dame, Arizona State University, University of Colorado at Boulder and UC Berkeley. We made a conscious decision to limit our network to these four chapters so we could understand whether our model could succeed on campuses as diverse as private, conservative-leaning, religiously-affiliated Notre Dame and public, progressive, secular UC Berkeley before expanding further. The results far exceeded our expectations. At Notre Dame, for example BridgeND drew hundreds of students to its events, became the first student organization to be awarded its own column in ND’s school newspaper, and brought ND’s College Republicans and Democrats together for the first time in years to participate together on panels, debate watches, and discussions. At Berkeley, in the wake of a nationally visible breakdown in multi-partisan conversation on February 1st, our chapter was able to successfully organize well-attended discussions. Their efforts attracted national media attention, cemented their organization firmly into the Berkeley political scene, and laid groundwork for several ambitious projects this coming year, including a campus-wide free speech event and bipartisan climate conference. Following the success of these diverse chapters, BridgeUSA is now in the process of expanding our network to dozens of campuses. We now have a tested model for success that can be scaled across the country.
While we may have different areas of focus and different constituencies, BridgeUSA and Heterodox Academy (HxA) share the same fundamental goal: to bring about the vision of a truly heterodox university. Thus, our efforts are often complementary. For example, students engaging in efforts to broaden their current discursive environments will ask their universities to implement policies which reflect this student-driven environment. This process is already beginning at Notre Dame as our chapter works with administrators to incorporate HxA’s Viewpoint Diversity Experience into the First Year of Studies curriculum. It is also working at more left-leaning campuses such as UC Berkeley, where our chapter is working with the administration to host various events centered around promoting free speech. However, our chapter leaders have found it difficult to sustain their impact without institutional, administrative, or professor support. As a result, our most successful chapters are those where faculty – who often provide institutional knowledge, access to greater resources, and mentorship – work together with our chapter leaders.
It follows that, while BridgeUSA and HxA have been independently successful so far, a partnership will benefit both of our movements. We envision passionate student leaders and HxA faculty working side by side to address the unique challenges on their campuses. In order to accomplish this vision, we hope to work with HxA faculty to locate potential student leaders on their campuses. We also hope to receive feedback on our mission and philosophy from the members of HxA with the aim of improving our capacity to meet our mutual objectives.
We at BridgeUSA look forward to getting to know the HxA members over the coming academic year. Together, we hope to bring about the ideal of an intellectually vibrant university, and a less divided society.
Roge Karma is a senior at the University of Notre Dame and the co-founder of BridgeUSA. He was formerly the President of BridgeND and currently manages BridgeUSA’s campus network as its Director for Chapter Development.