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New Initiative Fosters Discussion on Difficult Issues

Contact: Catherine Herman (518) 437-4980

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 5, 2006) -- The University at Albany has joined the national Difficult Dialogues initiative, which seeks to help institutions of higher education promote campuses where sensitive subjects can be discussed in an open atmosphere of scholarly inquiry, academic freedom, and respect for diversity.

The University was selected by the Ford Foundation as one of 43 campuses from among 675 applicants in a national competition. "The program builds on the premise," said Provost and Executive Vice President Susan Herbst, "that dialogical engagement enables students to become thinkers who make informed judgments, responsible citizens who appreciate multiple perspectives, and conscientious members of a global and pluralistic community who celebrate diversity in all its forms."

According to its tenets, Difficult Dialogues was created in response to reports of intolerance at institutions of higher education, with "the goal ... to help institutions address this challenge through academic and campus programs that enrich learning, encourage new scholarship and engage students and faculty in constructive dialogue about contentious political, religious, racial and cultural issues."

The initiative will be administered by the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society (CWGCS), housed at the University's Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, in collaboration with Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Sue Faerman.

The inaugural phase of this campus wide effort brings together 33 faculty and staff members to form the Difficult Dialogues Network.

According to Judith Saidel, executive director of CWGCS, "Network members are truly change agents. They are building the infrastructure necessary to strengthen the curricula by promoting pedagogical practices conducive to dialogical engagement, and institutionalizing values of academic freedom and pluralism. These values constitute the central tenets of democratic citizenship."

"The Initiative is an integral part of our efforts to consistently nurture inclusiveness and respect for differences in all its forms in every corner of campus life. It is central to our goal to systematically address divisions and polarization that students often encounter. Our students are the primary beneficiaries of this initiative," added Vice Provost Faerman.

The Network held its first meeting in March. Network members reflected on their reasons for joining the Network, and challenges in facilitating difficult dialogues on campus. The Network brainstormed potential strategies the initiative could undertake. Vice President for Student Success and Vice Provost for Assessment and Diversity James Anderson advised the Network to utilize a strong assessment model which would effectively measure the learning outcomes of its efforts. Current action plans under consideration by the Network include capacity building and skill development of faculty and students, curriculum development, utilization of the Difficult Dialogues Network for peer learning, needs assessment of students and faculty, and incentives for faculty and students.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us, but with such a dynamic, enthusiastic and committed Network guiding this effort, we are well on our way," Saidel said.


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