September 20, 2016

Becoming Braver

Last week I joined the presidents of Bennett, Davidson, Duke, Elon and Wake Forest at the Governor Morehead Forum in Greensboro for an important dialogue about the future of private higher education in North Carolina. The panel was moderated by D.G. Martin and slated for airing on public television later this fall. I was honored to be in such distinguished company.

College costs, student debt, equitable access and degree outcomes were predictable talking points of the evening. For the most part, although our respective operating realities are decidedly different, we share many of the same values in our pursuit of distinctive excellence. Guilford College took the opportunity to describe what "the practical liberal arts" mean in our society.

President Jane Fernandes speaks at the Governor Morehead Forum about the value of the practical liberal arts.

Concerning the current social climate on our campuses, however, clearly not everyone is on the same page. Our perspectives on the magnitude and implications of the issue vary.

Last fall, a group of thoughtful and concerned students representing “Integrity for Guilford” brought troubling issues to light. One woman of color who was harassed by a man, for example, didn’t want to report the incidents because she felt authorities would laugh her off or ignore her. Additional accounts revealed other systemic injustices experienced by Guilford students of color. Sadly, such occurrences are too common on campuses today.

Our work to repair those systems is just beginning. Students of color must feel just as safe and at home at Guilford College as white students do. What’s more, safety must also focus on providing protection and welcoming inclusiveness for all regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, freedom of religion and other forms of personal expression.

As we celebrate one of the largest, most diverse incoming classes in recent history, the time has come to be a more courageous college. Instead of settling for safe spaces, we need to create brave spaces.

The idea, developed by social justice education leaders Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens, is to establish a climate so safe that people who disagree can share a brave space to talk openly about their differing views and perspectives.

Citizens with a practical liberal arts education are the best hope for our future vitality as a nation, especially when they have the opportunity to learn with people who are different from themselves in the brave spaces such as those to be developed at Guilford College.