Faculty Senate: Encouraging active listening, engagement

The Stanford Faculty Senate on Sept. 24 discussed OpenXChange, a new campus initiative aimed at encouraging open and meaningful discourse on important issues across the Stanford community.

L.A. Cicero Harry J. Elam Jr.

Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, addresses the 47th Senate in this December 2014 file photo. At Thursday's meeting, he discussed the OpenXChange initiative.

At Thursday's Faculty Senate meeting, discussion focused on encouraging the Stanford community to engage in the open exchange of ideas and respectful listening.

On that point, Harry J. Elam Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education, addressed the first meeting of the 48th Senate on how the university will advance a new community-wide initiative in the wake of last year's heated discussions involving sexual assault, racial inequity, the Middle East and divestment.

OpenXChange is aimed at doing exactly that – boosting meaningful discourse, knowledge sharing and thoughtful listening on tough topics, Elam said.

"We've come today to solicit your help," said Elam, who was joined in his presentation by the Rev. Jane Shaw, dean for religious life.

OpenXChange is "community-driven" and will last throughout the academic year, Elam noted, adding that many students perceived a lack of action on the part of the university regarding the discussions that flared up on these issues.

"There was a feeling of fracture. Many wondered what should be the role of the university? What should be the role of higher education?" he said.

Faculty and students are critical to its success. "There's space for involvement," Elam said in an interview before the meeting. "We're seeking to create an environment for open and engaged discussion. People might disagree, but they can do it with respect."

Insight that leads to social impact is something that Stanford encourages, Elam said. Generating new knowledge and learning new perspectives is central to the initiative, and this depends on "each and every one of us," he added. "Stanford is all of us."

OpenXChange, Elam said, will offer an opportunity to reflect what the Stanford community is thinking about, and it is ultimately "evolutionary" and will change over time. It is especially important, he added, for the university to listen and engage with students.

The theme for the fall, "Stanford and the World," focuses on global challenges. Elam pointed out that faculty-led "open office hours" are aimed at creating opportunities for any member of the Stanford community to gain more information, more clarity or more varied perspectives. Faculty will lead open conversations about social and political issues relevant to students, faculty and staff.

To kick off the initiative, a listening tour will take place at various campus dining locations through Oct. 1. The first was held on Monday, Sept. 21.

Shaw added, "We are really concerned to hear the voices of all students. We would like to hear from them all."

Elam, along with Sally Dickson, special assistant to the president, who recently retired as an associate vice provost for student affairs, and other faculty and administrators will participate. It is bottom-up, Shaw and Elam said, as students are already working on how to implement the initiative.

Indeed, Stanford encourages students to embrace this as their own initiative, Elam said.

With much yet to unfold, Elam said, the student advisory council has been invited to partake in the initiative; "build it, lead it grants" for students are also in the mix, and new courses are being designed, such as one on the Middle East. Faculty can suggest forums, courses and workshops, and connections will be made to the new Cardinal Service initiative as well.

Some outside speakers have already been signed up. On Sept. 28, Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef will appear on campus and share his thoughts on political satire. (The event is sold out.) On Oct. 21, actor Anna Deavere Smith will recite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and discuss nonviolent resistance to racism.

Elam said that it was clear from last year's events that students truly wanted to learn more about pressing issues in the world. Education about these topics is central to OpenXChange, he said.

Winter quarter's theme will be "Stanford and the Nation," examining racial issues and the criminal justice system, among other topics.

Finally, in the spring, "Stanford and Our Community" will involve discussions on social inequality and the arts. In particular, the initiative invites people to consider the role of artistic expression in examining critical social issues.

"We want to create an unfettered environment where we can have free and open discussions on campus," Elam said.

David Palumbo-Liu, a professor of comparative literature, suggested that the initiative was encouraging, given how it will allow "students to drive the discussion." Too many times, he said, universities are "top down" on such initiatives, which therefore face difficulty.

In a Sept. 10 letter to the Stanford community, President John L. Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy announced the kick-off of OpenXChange.

"Tensions rose as people on differing sides of issues felt that others simply weren't listening or weren't taking the actions they thought appropriate. Some felt disrespected, while others felt silenced," they wrote.

The new Faculty Senate chair, Kathryn Moler, a professor of physics and of applied physics, presided over the meeting. In other business, Etchemendy noted upcoming changes to the faculty housing program that would offer more assistance. The full minutes of the Sept. 24 meeting will be available in early October.