A proactive approach today


Evan Halpop

Freshman Uniqua Woodson talks with fellow students about what the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater can do to improve diversity and foster an inviting environment on campus at “Shaping Our Future Through Civil Dialogue.

Gabriella Neurock and Brad Allen

Almost two years after an incident on campus sparked outrage over racial discrimination, and in the wake of several disturbing current events, members of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater community came together in what administrators described as a proactive approach to better equip the university to respond to such issues in the future.

Scores of student leaders and faculty members came together for round-table discussions at an event titled “Shaping Our Future Through Civil Dialogue” from 4-6 p.m. on Feb. 15 in the UC Hamilton Room. 

Faculty and students in attendance were asked by administrators to participate in discussions which will help develop new programs that enable a more inviting atmosphere and more diversity on campus.

“When students, faculty and staff work together, the outcome can be transformational,” Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Dr. Brent Bilodeau said. “I know that our campus is a microcosm of society, and it gives me great hope that we really can be the change.”

Dr. LaVar Charleston, Assistant Vice Chancellor Student Diversity, Engagement Success, offered a plethora of reasons behind the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s motivation to host the event. The university hopes to facilitate positive discussions on sensitive subjects to allow all members of the campus community to brainstorm best practices to enable and create a discourse that is livable on campus today.

Dean of Students Dr. Artanya Wesley said the event, also referred to as the “World Cafe,” was geared toward providing a relaxed atmosphere where students and faculty could listen to one another’s ideas and concerns in hopes of gathering feedback for more focused programs and policies they’d like to see implemented on campus.

Wesley said the dialogue facilitated during the event was centered around seven guiding principles:

  • Active listening
  • Creating a hospitable place
  • Exploring questions that matter
  • Encouraging contributions
  • Connecting diverse perspectives
  • Active engagement and creative dialogue
  • Sharing collective discoveries

“Every voice has an opportunity to be heard,” Wesley said.


Round-table discussions

Student body president Tom Kind facilitated a few of the discussions among students and faculty members. During one of those discussions, Kind asked the group to define what civil discourse means for them. Responses varied from having respectful conversations to making participants feel comfortable.

“We are utilizing what we have on campus to come together as a group,” Kind said. He added that the campus climate two years ago “wasn’t good,” saying the Warhawk community needs to move forward together by engaging in meaningful discussions about controversial topics.

Some of the students engaging in the group discussion led by Kind said controversial subjects are often inaccessible for the larger community to have a real dialogue. These students said the larger conversation should be made simpler by simplifying questions about the topics.


‘A thousand emails’

Apart from the language of addressing civil discourse often being overly-technical rather than conversational, the strategies for attempting to garner student interest are not generally successful.

Students floated around a host of ideas for how to engage other students in future events. Social media pages are too casual, and email messages are almost completely ineffective, as many said they immediately delete emails that aren’t related to their classes.

“We get a thousand emails a day, as students,” junior Danny Overstreet said.

Several students suggested the use of an eye-catching logo, large signs, fliers or even placing holds on student accounts as the best methods for capturing students’ full attention. Others recommended the university establish a permanent venue on campus that serves as a center for future civil discussions related to controversial subjects.


Fear of speaking up

“Overall, we are a pretty accepting campus,” freshman Olivia Storey said, adding that being able to have an open mind and seeking to understand differences is essential to a positive campus climate.

“A safe space is basically a place where you can come and get away from everything going on around campus and putting together our ideas,” graduate student Jalen Cole said.

Freshman Lonnie Chambers said that looking back to his senior year of high school and during the 2016 election cycle, the ways students established their line of communication caused discussions to go south because students lacked a welcoming line of communication skills.

“There should be less of a fear to speak up, because speaking up is what brings us that difference of opinion,” freshman Austin May said.


Too quick to react

“A lot of people are quick to react – physically or verbally,” Overstreet said. “Our reaction should be to educate, to ask ‘OK, but do you know what that means?’”

David Travis, Dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, agreed.

“We are too quick to give an opinion and not take a minute to absorb what they just said,” Travis said.


Tangible topics

Sophomore Ahmya Cheatham said experience by immersing oneself into “the real thing” is the most effective way to learn how to better navigate controversial discussions. “It if isn’t tangible … it won’t stick.”

Overstreet and Cheatham both said Black Student Union held separate meetings with both the College Republicans and College Democrats shortly after the 2016 presidential election.

Cheatham said that incidents like school shootings such as the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland, Florida need to be discussed in classroom settings.

“We need to keep things on track, but you can’t ignore the real world,” Cheatham said. “It could become our world.”


Recap of the event

Charleston said there is no single successful “top-to-down approach” in terms of facilitating civil discourse. “We have to figure out what works for Whitewater.”

“Whenever we’re in a time where we aren’t responding to something is the right time to have that conversation,” Charleston said. “It’s much more important to be proactive and to engage in respectful conversations. It’s a perfect time now this year, because we aren’t reacting to something.”

“There are these pockets of excellence and best practices on our campus, and events like this bring those together,” Charleston said. “This is for everyone.”

Dr. Susan Elrod, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, said she was excited to see so many students present at the event.

Of the nearly 100 participants who attended the event, an estimated 50 percent were students, said Andrea Romein, an executive assistant of the provost’s office.

“We need to prepare proactively for issues that might arise,” Elrod said. “This makes it easier for us to come together, and we already have.”

Elrod said feedback from the Feb. 15 session will be given to the Steering Committee for them to formulate ideas for campus-wide programming on civil discourse. She speculated that more specific details and ideas might be announced near the end of the Spring semester, with changes likely to come sometime during the next academic year.

Romein said UW-Whitewater is the only school in the UW System that’s pursuing methods to better navigate civil discourse.

Government and Community Outreach Coordinator Joel Nilsestuen said he is in the process of working alongside three UW-W students to speak with legislators in the state Senate about civil discourse programming.

“Our students do amazing things,” Nilsestuen said. “It’s just about being about being able to share that with them [state lawmakers]. We want to show them how UW-Whitewater is taking a proactive approach.”

Nilsestuen said campus events can give tools for students and faculty to use when interacting over controversial topics, and he added that utilizing available campus tools can make disagreement between two parties productive, allowing something productive to come out of expressing those opposing viewpoints.