Is this a trend?

I first noticed it at Denison. I’d seen several presidents come and go at Denison and OWU; I’d met Gordon Gee at OSU; but not till Dale Knobel did I notice a President who was equally, it seemed, a scholar, a historian, with a life of his own aside from being President of a university. I noticed this because when he gave speeches, they were infectious and interesting, not the “of course he has to say that” sort of blah-blah blather that, frankly, most Presidents seem sentenced to as part of their punishment for accepting the job. Dale was always exciting to listen to, and a big reason was he was sharing some interesting historic nugget. At commencement, at building dedications, even on the radio during a very tense time of conflict at the college, he was always putting things into context for me, keeping me in the moment as I listened… because of his personal engagement with the issues at hand.

I just assumed it was a Dale Knobel thing. Then I thought about Bill Brown at Cedarville, and the fact I had observed that he played the guitar with the students, he does his own World View videos aside from his office as President. Hmmm. Another President who was a person with an identity apart from his job.

And then I bumped into Amy Gutmann on BigThink, the new YouTube of the college scene. (Her comments on diversity, by the way, are excellent.) Now it really got me thinking.

Her title on the site: “President, UPenn; Political Theorist.” Wow. One would think President, UPenn was enough of a title; but no, Political Theorist was right next to it. As if I gave my title as “President of Ztories, and Father of 4 Daughters and Three Grandsons.” Or better yet, “President, Ztories, and Essayist on Epistemology”. Unrelated fields, one’s a job, one’s a passion. One’s a place of power, the other’s a personal zone of interest. Part of the identity of the person, which does not need any affirmation by others to make it important.

I can’t be the President of UPenn or Denison because I decide to be. Others have to give me that title; and for most of the Presidents I’ve seen, that appeared to be the pinnacle of achievement, to be so recognized.

But I can be a Political Theorist whether I’m the President of UPenn or of Cellblock 59. It is a title I confer upon myself, because of my interest in Politics or History or How we Know Things.

So my hats off to Amy Gutmann and Dale Knobel and Bill Brown, for teaching me something important about leadership. And now I ask all you folks out there in the college cave. Is this sort of personal identity trumping corporate identity a trend? Is something changing? Or has it always existed and I just happened to wake up?

Boulder vs. Springs

The best article on communications philosophy in some time appeared today in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Polarization of Extremes, by Cass Sunstein, explores the way in which the web can make it easy for people to just read and listen to those who agree with them. By subscribing to the feeds of info that support what we already believe, it is getting easier and easier to become completely polarized. Extremism flourishes when we water it with confident assertions without any substantive counterpoints and contrary evidence.

The most interesting factual support for this view in the article comes from research in Colorado in 2005. People from Boulder — known to be a liberal enclave — filled out opinion forms before and after a discussion with a liberal perspective on several issues. Another group from Colorado Springs — known to be a conservative enclave — participated in a conservatively-biased discussion on the same topics. In both cases the groups became more polarized as a result of hearing what they already were inclined to agree with. For example,

Liberals favored an international treaty to control global warming before discussion; they favored it far more strongly after discussion. Conservatives were neutral on that treaty before discussion, but they strongly opposed it after discussion.

For colleges, the lesson seems obvious. Cultivating a diverse community can help young people avoid this sort of crippling intellectual narrowness — if that liberality of perspective continues to embrace and honor conservative perspectives as well.

Enclaves such as my client Cedarville University face a different problem: how to include liberal perspectives while by definition the student body and faculty must commit to a conservative perspective. Here, the intellectual honesty and sense of fairness of students and faculty must be strengthened by activities that engage the enclave in dialog with a wider circle than the college can provide internally. Recent trends have been encouraging in this regard: the debate team leaving an “enclave” league and engaging in parliamentary debate with secular schools has broadened the perspective of some of the college’s brightest students. Participation on national medical ethics conferences, allowing a homosexual rights advocacy group to visit campus for courteous dialog, and the constant emphasis by President Brown on “engaging the culture” seem to keep enough air holes in the jar for the Cedarville community to avoid suffocation due to rebreathing each other’s intellectual air.

On balance, both the secular schools and the religious schools that I serve have the same problem — they tend to have a dominant institutional enclave mentality. But they all seem to be doing better than the society as a whole at forcing themselves to hear opinions that seem off-beat or strange.

For myself, I routinely read things that I disagree with, order to keep my “professional outsider” muscles strong. I love the challenge of rubbing shoulders with those who examine my assumptions and question my epistemology. And I try to find friends and clients who are willing to reciprocate by tolerating my constant, frustrating, effervescence.

I’m looking forward to getting Cass’s new book, Republic.com 2.0.