Communication and Community


Agreeing to disagree: President-Elect Quillen discusses the creation of a safe space for people to talk about their differences.

The topic in one of President-elect Carol Quillen’s online video interviews was communication and community. (I’m counting it
as one topic since the two words spring from the same roots.)

Quillen’s starting point was the utterly familiar perspective of winners and losers in a black and white world. She ended at a point more nuanced, more realistic and, we must always hope, more fruitful.

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A history professor with a broad view, Quillen used her own career in higher education—from student debater to professor to senior administrator to leader in the realms of religious tolerance, global strategic thinking, interdisciplinarity, anddiversity—as a backdrop for the logical progression of her thinking. Things she’d learned along her own way, in other words.

Quillen made the point that not every subject lends itself to debate in the formal definition, that a final answer need not be the overriding point of every  exchange of ideas.

“Human beings are going to profoundly disagree on things that are very deeply important to them,” she said. “Hoping for agreement is naïve, in effect unhelpful, and occasionally unethical. How do you structure a conversation so that people are talking about things that matter the most to them, in a way that doesn’t anticipate agreement or resolution at the end?

If you really want people to feel safe discussing their faith or their convictions,” Quillen continued, “you cannot create an environment of debate. It’s not helpful and it’s not respectful. So how do you create a safe space for people to talk about their very real differences: differences in values, differences in commitment, differences in belief?

“How do you create that space such that people leave, not necessarily agreeing, which is impossible, but confident that they’ve found a path to coexist in peace?”

As Davidson College continues to grow to mirror the world we live in—and the world we want to live in—our collective questions and the discussions we have
around them must be more important than any one answer.

That’s how we communicate and live in community here.

—John Syme


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