For Jane Luzar and Khadija Khaja, “respectful conversation and dialogue” is the glue that holds a large college campus together even when views are completely different.
That’s what they envisioned for the Common Theme at IUPUI, launched a year ago to help the campus deal with issues that could lead to polarized discourse in teaching and learning climates.
Khaja is a faculty member from the School of Social Work and the Academic Affairs Faculty Fellow responsible for the 2013-15 Common Theme, “Find Your Voice: Hear My Voice.”
Khaja facilitates the program, working closely with mentor Dean Jane Luzar of Honors College, the director of project, and an interdisciplinary collaboration of Common Theme steering committee faculty, staff, community members and students.
There are numerous events planned for 2014-15, but the two most significant on this year’s Common Theme calendar include keynote talks by the distinguished Rev. Harold Good on September 10 and by author/filmmaker Phil Cousineau on Nov. 19. Cousineau wrote “Beyond Forgiveness, Reflections on Atonement: Healing the Past, Making Amends, and Restoring Balance in our Lives and World.”
For Luzar, Common Theme fills a vital role campus role.
“We wanted to develop a way for our campus to discuss important issues without them getting bogged down in politics or personalities,” Luzar said. “Common Theme helps achieve that goal.”
Luzar is convinced that IUPUI is on the right track to encourage a free flow of ideas and generate thought, particularly among students. For example, she said, Good is known for helping shepherd Northern Ireland in a direction toward fewer guns and a peace agreement among previously warring factions.
“If you think about it, that’s a rather timely subject for those of us in Indianapolis,” Luzar said, referring to the escalating number of shootings and murders in our city. She is hopeful that Good’s commitment to peace, justice and reconciliation might rub off on guests attending Good’s IUPUI appearance.
Campus reaction to Common Theme events has been solid, the Honors College official noted.
Khaja and co-investigators Kathy Grove, Dan Griffith and Ian McIntosh led 33 focus groups to help discover when discussions tended to break down. “It was clear that students, faculty, staff and some community members wanted more cross-campus conversations,” she said.
For example “we heard all the time that faculty didn’t feel comfortable expressing themselves or their opinions in class because they worried that some students would penalize them for being too conservative or too liberal,” Luzar noted. “And we heard the same things from some students about faculty reaction.”
The focus groups identified a wide array of hot-button issues, including bullying and cyber-bullying, race, religion, sexual identity and many more.
Events and workshops have been well attended to try and address some of the issues. But it can be difficult to measure the value of a program like Common Theme can be, Luzar said.
The project is drawing wide interest. The collaboration between Common Theme and the Office for Intergroup Dialogue and Civil Community will be discussed at this month’s annual conference and expo of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. And the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks invited Khaja to speak on lessons learned and how to implement such a program.
“Khaja’s research has helped us find ways to get schools otherwise siloed to work together and focus on key topics,” Luzar said. “That’s useful to building our campus community.”
by Ric Burrous