When I first became a dean, one of my colleagues said to me, “So, what kind of dean do you want to be?”
It was pretty clear to me that the expected answer was not the glib, “An Arts and Sciences dean, of course.” But it was less clear what she was really asking. She then clarified by saying, “You know that no matter what decision you make, you will please some people, maybe even most people, but not everyone. So what is it that you want people to think about you, whether your decisions please them or not?”
This was really a question about values—about the principles that would guide the way I make decisions. And my colleague wasn’t talking just about the big decisions, as I have learned. It is the small decisions that you make almost without thinking about them that really reveal who you are and what you value:
Do you think of others or expect them to think about you? Do you treat everyone as an equal or expect perks because of your position? Can you be gracious when the people are angry, understand others’ perspectives even when you disagree with them, find ways to build consensus and foster an atmosphere of mutual respect? Do you see compromise, tolerance, and empathy as strengths or weaknesses?
As the recent election has shown, the US has deep political divisions. Candidates on the right and the left have vowed to uphold their principles and never compromise. This seems to me to be an antithetical stance for a democracy and for a society that values learning. If you are not open to new ideas, if you do not see the humanity in people you disagree with and refuse to reach out to them, then the glue that holds our society together will not hold and you will not learn new, and often better ways of thinking. This is the essence of a liberal arts education, the heart of what we mean when we talk about critical thinking.
Critical thinking does not mean being critical of others. It means examining what you are doing, why you are doing it, and whether you should be doing it or making a change. It is about looking at what you value, considering its impact on others, and deciding how to move forward—sometimes it is also about changing what you think because you have a deeper understanding of the world. It includes in its scope the fundamental value that if you conclude that something is not fair, that it is discriminatory or harmful, that it privileges some at the expense of others, then you must take action to change it. Sometimes the best you can do is painfully incremental, but you still have to stay engaged and work for the change.
We have seen this in action this past week on the NY campus. Some of you may have seen the video put together by some Pace students discussing a poster that appeared on the Homer screens. The poster used language and appeared to endorse ideas that disparaged women and the LGBTQ communities. The video provided a forum for Pace students to address our community through social media and create a dialogue that would serve as a learning experience. In this instance it is students who took the lead, pointing out the harm that language can inflict when it is used without fully understanding its impact on others.
The follow-up events have involved numerous groups on campus coming together to discuss the issues raised in the poster, which, parenthetically, was trying to generate a conversation about language and discrimination but in a way that did not take into account the impact of the slogans used to advertize the discussion.
This is where tolerance and empathy have come in. Our campus is responding by coming together, by seeing our words and actions from the perspectives of a diverse community and engaging each other in discussions that will lead to change. This discussion has been facilitated by student, faculty and administrative leaders working together to create an environment where people feel safe in discussing their ideas, grappling with their misperceptions and mistakes, and coming together to create something better: moving forward in accord with the highest tenets of a liberal arts education.
So maybe thinking I wanted to be “An Arts and Sciences dean” wasn’t so glib, after all.