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Middlebury College will use $25 million grant to tackle growing divisiveness in the public square

Fall foliage scenic photo of the Middlebury College campus made with a drone
Brett Simison
Middlebury College, Courtesy
Middlebury College will use a grant to to train students and community members in conflict transformation.

Middlebury College has received a $25 million programming grant — the largest such grant in the school's history — to train students and community members in conflict transformation.

Conflict transformation is an effort to move conflict toward positive goals. Although this kind of work is not new to Middlebury College, the grant will help advance efforts to tackle growing divisiveness in the public square, promoting the college's mission of preparing students to make meaningful change in their communities, and in the wider world.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Middlebury College President Laurie Patton about the $25 million grant. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: It's no surprise, President Patton, that it is becoming really tough these days to engage in the public sphere in a civil way. So, I want to talk about this grant and the difference between conflict transformation and traditional conflict resolution. What's the chief difference here, and what this money will help fund and the approach to it?

Middlebury College President Laurie Patton
Brett Simison
Middlebury College, Courtesy
Middlebury College President Laurie Patton.

Laurie Patton: Conflict transformation is an approach that assumes that conflict will be with us in the world. But in assuming that conflict is an inevitable part of our world also assumes that the structural elements that lead to conflict are things that we should pay attention to.

Every conflict has a trajectory. And quite frequently it goes toward the negative, it goes towards violence. It goes towards resentment. It goes towards bitterness. Whereas if you are aware, when you're in a conflict, of what the structural issues are, and you also have training in how to think about your own role in the conflict, that you'll be able to move that conflict toward a positive direction rather than a negative one.

Well, can you give some specific examples maybe of how conflict transformation might be used in a real-life setting?

I'll give you a a very straightforward one, which is two people are arguing over an orange. And if you take a step back, then you ask yourself, what is it that they want? And you ask one person and they say, "Well, I actually want the skin of the orange to make a cake." And the other person just wants to eat the orange, "I'm really hungry." Then you are going to, first of all, attend to the conditions: does the first person have an oven? Does the second person need to be in a place which is less food insecure? And then more importantly, you are going to say, "Oh, they have different needs, and they could actually split the orange."

That's a very simple example. But it gets at the underlying dynamics.

"... if you are aware, when you're in a conflict, of what the structural issues are, and you also have training in how to think about your own role in the conflict, that you'll be able to move that conflict toward a positive direction rather than a negative one."
Laurie Patton, Middlebury College president

And it gets to that trajectory you were talking about where you trace back to what is it that we're actually arguing about here, instead of maybe starting from that conflict spark point, where I want to eat the orange, I want to use the orange for cooking.

Exactly. And if you look at something deeper, and you ask why, it does change things. And I want to be really clear that this is not a Pollyanna approach. It's hard. It is something that people need to think about all the time. We have no illusions that conflict is going to be reduced, but rather, we hope it will be understood differently and transformed.

More from VPR: Vermont's One Small Step

Who will benefit from this program and who will have access to it?

We are really excited. It has five different pillars. The first is in high schools. So students read literature with an eye towards their leadership in thinking through difficult conversations with people who have different views than they do.

The second pillar is undergraduate education. And we have a wonderful program called the Engaged Listening Project, which we're going to expand. And that helps faculty work on leading difficult conversations in the classroom.

And then the third pillar is community engagement, starting with 21 internships this summer with our wonderful poverty and privilege program that looks at the effects of poverty and the ways in which conflict is started by a difference in privilege and poverty levels.

And then the fourth pillar is graduate formation, our California campus in Monterey, which sponsors the program in nuclear nonproliferation. We have simulations of nuclear crises, where people actually try to negotiate out of that through diplomacy. We had a wonderful student, for example, who found herself negotiating between two Syrian villages because her husband was Syrian, and she needed to learn Arabic better because she found herself in this informal diplomacy role.

And then we have the global pillar, we are going to be finding informal and formal student experiences, to look at different cultures approaches to how they resolve conflict.

"We have no illusions that conflict is going to be reduced, but rather, we hope it will be understood differently and transformed."
Laurie Patton, Middlebury College president

Why do you think it is so difficult now to have a civil conversation about, you can pick almost any topic, whether it's things related to COVID, whether it's things related to books?

So I think there are two reasons. I think the first is what we all know, which is the effect of social media. We know those algorithms actually encourage you to go to the next level of extremism. And also, more broadly, fewer face-to-face interactions, you have an idea of your interlocutor, which may not be realistic.

You know, I hear what you're saying about the social media problem. And I completely agree with you, it has really transformed the way we interact with each other. But I want to push back a little bit on the importance of face-to-face meeting with someone who may disagree with you. Because while that seems like yes, that would be a better way of communicating with someone, I'm thinking about a lot of these extremely angry school board meeting incidents around the country where people are seeing a person face-to-face, but they just descend into screaming, yelling invectives, much of the time.

Is there something wrong about that kind of face-to-face meeting in that school board setting, for example, that isn't exactly what you're talking about?

I think you're absolutely right. You see it in public demonstrations, in addition to town hall meetings. The way we would approach it would be looking at scaffolding the conversation. So, having people think differently about why they're coming to a town meeting, do more preparation.

We have lots of folks who, as they move into any sort of tough conversation, will have smaller group conversations first before the large performative conversation, which is an incredibly important thing. Reflection about the conversation before entering the conversation is something that we found has really helped and worked at Middlebury, even in tough classroom conversations. I think it's really important to acknowledge that it's not as if those conversations aren't going to get heated. But even there, there's a way in which people can take a beat, take stock of what's happening, and see how we can contribute to the conversation given our experience.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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