Northeastern faculty and administrators on Monday evening encouraged students to embrace their diversity across culture, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and many other forms in an effort to build a stronger and more resilient campus community.
“Building bridges across our differences is essential for establishing sustainable communities over the long term and for educating global citizens,” said Uta Poiger, co-chair of the Presidential Council on Inclusion and Diversity and interim dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. “Our work abroad can only be effective if we carefully reflect on our challenges at home.”
The sentiment was repeated throughout the first event in a yearlong educational series on “civic sustainability,” which focused on hate crimes, intergroup relations, and campus climate. The series—Conflict. Civility. Respect. Peace. Northeastern Reflects—is organized by College of Social Sciences and Humanities and the Office of Student Affairs and is hosted by Distinguished Professor of Political Science Michael Dukakis in conjunction with the PCID.
President Joseph E. Aoun announced the formation of the presidential council earlier in the month in a speech on diversity and inclusion. Monday’s event, “Understanding Hate,” featured a quartet of panelists comprising Jack Levin, the Irving and Betty Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology; Jack McDevitt, the associate dean of research in the College of Social Science and Humanities and the director of the Institute on Race and Justice; Richard O’Bryant, the director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute; and Gordana Rabrenovic, associate professor of sociology and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict.
Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, welcomed to the event some 300 students who filled 20 West Village F. “It is our privilege to be an oasis of viewpoints and provide an environment where a healthy exchange of ideals and ideas takes place,” he told them.
Dukakis, whom Director characterized as the “perfect person to guide our discussion on civility,” agreed with the provost. “Campus,” he said, “should serve as the model for what we want to see in society.”
The college campus is perhaps surprisingly the third most popular venue for a hate crime, according to McDevitt, trailing only the home and the street. The majority of offenders, he said, are young adults who find enjoyment in hurting others because of their differences.
“Anyone in this room could be a victim of a hate crime,” he said. “[Perpetrators] think no one will care what they do,” he added, “but events like this are important because it shows that we do care.”
Rabrenovic stressed the importance of responding to a hate crime by gathering the facts and disseminating the findings in a timely and orderly manner in order to prevent further escalation.
“Trust is a key part of civic society and it is continually tested,” she said. “We need to be able to depend on each other,” she added. “Cooperation, not competition, is key.”
Levin agreed with Rabrenovic, noting that empathy is “one of the most important human characteristics.” But he expressed dismay that the majority of people don’t empathize with those suffering from unfamiliar problems.
He gave an example, explaining that late actor Christopher Reeve of Superman fame only took up the cause of curing spinal cord injury after a horse riding accident left him paralyzed.
Levin praised Reeve’s work, but noted that “it illustrates that people can’t see beyond their own problems. We need to increase the breath of empathy toward people we have never met.”
O’Bryant, for his part, focused on the persistent issue of race on the college campus. He explained that campuses have faced a racial divide since the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., citing a self-report study that found that racial segregation still exists among college students across the country.
“The question is: What are we going to do about it?” he said, noting that he often sees students on campus clustered in racially homogenous groups. “Will we take charge? Will we be honest with each other? Will we be willing to answer the difficult questions?”
After the series of lectures, faculty answered questions posed by students in the audience. One student, who described himself as a Turkish-Armenian, asked Levin to explain the media’s role in perpetuating prejudice.
Many television shows often rely on stereotypes, Levin said, which get passed down from one generation to the next. “We learn prejudices from an early age around the dinner table and when we’re older, we learn them from our friends and the TV.”
The series continues this semester with “I am Northeastern: NU Students Build Community and Peace” on March 20 and the annual Northeastern Holocaust Commemoration on April 8.
– by Jason Kornwitz