Institutions of higher education — particularly those as diverse as the University of Baltimore — still stand tall as places in contemporary society where people from vastly different backgrounds can come together to examine complex ideas. As times change quickly, and politics shift as suddenly as tectonic plates, that’s more important than ever.

Though polarization and segregation, some of it the result of harmful historical legacies and some self-imposed, stand as defining features of the American landscape in 2024, we remain hopeful that the current unrest besetting America’s college campuses can be channeled toward a constructive outcome.

Social scientists have long understood that the reduction of prejudice and the fostering of understanding take time and require sustained, equal-status contact that is interdependent, favorable, and intentional. This is why academic programs are structured as they are, and this is why professors encourage their students to find their voice but always remain civil.

The relationships that result from exposure to individuals with different convictions and backgrounds are what makes higher learning so special. And it’s what keeps many of us engaged, whether as faculty members or higher education leaders.

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In a recent guest essay in The New York Times titled “The Best College is One Where You Don’t Fit In,” the president of Wesleyan University, Michael S. Roth, remarked: “The most rewarding forms of education make you feel very uncomfortable, not least because they force you to recognize your own ignorance. Students should hope to encounter ideas and experience cultural forms that push them beyond their current opinions and tastes. Sure, revulsion is possible (and one can learn from that), but so is the discovery that your filtered ways of taking in the world had blocked out things in which you now delight. One learns from that, too.”

He goes on to observe that “great teachers help make a college great because they themselves are never done being students.”

We are personally inspired by great educators who ask more questions than they answer because it is by wrestling with difficult questions and engaging students and the public in dialogue that discovery, progress and understanding can result.

Many contemporary global disputes, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is capturing the attention of campuses across our nation, are at their root complicated social and communal conflicts with long histories. A defining attribute of these protracted social conflicts is deeply divided communities that lack opportunities for relationship building and mechanisms for peaceful coexistence.

Many of these conflicts appear intransigent over the course of generations because they involve deeply rooted problems that are difficult to resolve. Others involve material and emotional needs that have gone unaddressed. Some involve existential questions of domination, injustice, and inequality. But approaching these matters as zero-sum contests to be won may not be constructive.

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At their core, conflicts result from the perception of incompatible differences and the absence of forums to address these differences on an even footing. It is, after all, easier to dismiss individuals with whom one has little contact than those with whom one has deeper ties.

Great peacemakers understand that differences need not lead to hostilities or violence. While norms and structures reflect the repetitive actions of individual agents, their implications can be understood and improved realities brought into existence through the agency of individuals committed to different ends.

The bottom line is that constructive change can begin in the classroom, and it often does.

At our institution, the change we seek derives from the Latin root of the word education — educare. It’s a word that means to nourish or lead out of. It is a scholar’s job to cultivate ideas and pursue inquiry that improves the human condition; it is a student’s job to look toward the future with the aim of putting the knowledge they acquire to good and ethical use in solving the world’s most pressing concerns.

While it is clear that freedom of inquiry, freedom of expression and freedom of thought are under assault around the world — and we must never take them for granted at home — neither should we allow these freedoms or our differences to be used as cloaks for actions that threaten, demean, target or harass those on our campuses or those committed to building a brighter future.

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Institutions of higher learning can play a crucial and transformative role in this defining moment in history by convening important discussions, upholding the inherent value of difference and reminding those on their campuses of their shared humanity and common commitments, even as they disagree over fundamental issues.

We take pride in knowing that by reminding students, staff and faculty that far from being something that should be feared or avoided, conflict — if handled constructively — is an opportunity for new beginnings. It is in these conversations that we help to create a more peaceful world.

Kurt L. Schmoke is president of the University of Baltimore and the former mayor of Baltimore City.

Ivan Sascha Sheehan is a professor of public and international affairs and the associate dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore.

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