Photo by Chenyu Guan

The Great Reset

Peter T. Coleman
8 min readMay 18, 2024

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How to Leverage the Current Crisis at Columbia University

May 2024

Columbia University is nearing the end of a historically catastrophic academic year. After countless protests and counterprotests over the atrocious violence in Israel, Gaza, and the Palestinian territories, accusations of antisemitism and Islamophobia, multiple related lawsuits brought against the university, a public congressional shaming of our leadership, and 217 arrests on campus, we are today left with a divided and often divisive faculty and student body, a cohort of frightened and furious students forced to flee campus (many for good), a senior class feeling robbed of their commencement, an anxious and wary incoming class, irate groups of parents, donors and alumni, and a media-industrial complex circling our campus like flocks of vultures.

The good news is that studies show that times of destabilizing crises like these can present ideal conditions for dramatic changes in the course of institutions — unique opportunities for a reset. Especially when a majority of community stakeholders are exhausted and fed up with the status quo and eager for change. They can also reveal underlying fissures and vulnerabilities in basic functioning and capacities for resilience, and therefore present vital opportunities to learn.

However, a necessary condition for navigating out of such times effectively is having a clear sense of an alternative way forward — a pathway out of the patterns that got us here. It is not enough for the community to be ready to change, they also need a solid sense of how to do so.

There has already been much written about the drivers of our disarray, which are myriad, layered and in flux. Addressing these challenges effectively is unlikely to be done through business as usual; such wicked problems often require a radically different approach — beginning with a clear reset. They also benefit from a capacity to zoom out and comprehend the larger system of forces shaping the crisis — especially at an institution as vast, complicated and siloed as Columbia — and then to zoom in, identify key levers for change, and ultimately interrogate and alter the underlying culture that fed the crisis.

Here are a few steps we might take to begin such a process of changing course.

Step 1: Announce a one-year, university-wide reset. President Shafik, the Board of Trustees, and the Presidents and Deans of all 19 schools and 4 affiliated colleges and seminaries at Columbia should commit the summer of 24 to designing, organizing and launching a one-year, university-wide reset. Crises like ours can motivate people and institutions to question their primary goals and strategies. But significant cultural excavation takes time, intentionality, and care, and requires skilled, distributed leadership across the campuses who can make a compelling case for change, offer sufficient support, and guarantee transparent, substantive follow through.

Step 2: Listen and learn. The reset should begin by identifying a politically-diverse network of the more trusted, candid, and influential members of our communities — clergy, coaches, deans, student leaders, Resident Assistants, faculty, ombuds, mediators, alumni, staff, and so on — and then gathering them together to listen to their insights into the drivers of the crisis, primary concerns going forward, and possible remedies. These sessions should be organized locally by the leadership of each of the 23 units, and facilitated in order to learn about both the specific circumstances at each campus and generalizable insights across the university. These meetings should include thorough discussions of the people, programs, policies and procedures that are already working well in our community to encourage free expression and prevent and mitigate bias, hate and harassment of all types on campus, in addition to identifying the main drivers of our crisis and the specific changes needed to reduce the odds of this happening again.

Step 3: Map the landscape of the crisis — locally and generally. The complexity of wicked problems can overwhelm even experienced problem-solvers, but these processes can be supported by simple techniques for navigating complex problems. For example, the information gathered from the listening sessions at each unit could be prioritized by importance and changeability, and categorized into those factors driving division and turmoil on campus versus those currently helping to prevent, mitigate or repair tensions. Small, mixed groups of stakeholders at each unit could then map — physically draw — the relationships of these drivers and inhibitors on their campus with respect to the effects they seem to have on a culture of just peace — one that promotes free speech, activism, tolerance, civility and constructive management of our differences. Such complexity-mapping techniques have been found to enhance understanding of the system of forces at play in some crises, as well as help identify high-impact or novel ways to intervene. The insights gleaned from each of these sessions could inform unit-based policy or programming changes, as well as be synthesized across units to identify university-level initiatives going forward.

Step 4: Establish a network of champion teams. The members of the 23 groups assembled for steps 2 and 3 could then be supported to help generate unit-level SMART action plans based on their understanding of each school’s priority concerns and proposed remedies. These plans, timelines, and associated metrics could be shaped in consultation with each school’s leadership team, as well as with the other 22 planning groups at Columbia. This process may also involve other campuses across the country — those struggling with similar issues and those who seemed to have managed them well — to gain lessons learned. This process could culminate in a multiyear plans for each unit, the implementation of which could be integrated into existing offices (Provost, Student Life, DEI, etc.) and supported and tracked by the University.

Step 5: Build on what is already working first. One mistake made by many institutions facing serious crises is to turn first to external experts and programs to solve their problems. A powerful alternative is to first turn to the many positive deviants — the internal people, programs and policies that are currently working well to mitigate problems and offer solutions. Think of them as the existing immune system of the community, quietly fighting against intolerance, enmity and hate. The mapping processes can help to identify these existing “networks of effective action” within the units and across the university. Identifying, learning from and supporting these aspects of each campus — carefully, as to not hamper their impact — should be job one.

Step 6: Reduce the odds of the worst happening again: Listening and mapping can also help identify the more serious vulnerabilities or gaps at each unit and university wide. For example, Columbia is sorely lacking in a sufficient peacebuilding and peacemaking infrastructure (which is distinct from the peacekeeping activities of public security). That is, a comprehensive approach to fostering a climate of just peace, which can include a host of activities including conflict-management skills training at student, staff and faculty orientations, offering cooperative learning techniques in classrooms, establishing peer mediation programs, and encouraging the use of constructive controversy procedures in complex decision-making processes. It should also involve building a cohort of trusted and trained individuals who can respond to early warnings of conflict escalation on each campus as needed. Here, the university can benefit from existing resource groups on campus such as the various Ombuds offices, the mediation clinic at the Law school, and the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College. However, they could also benefit from external groups currently working to build tolerance and peace on college campuses, including BridgeUSA, the Constructive Dialogue Institute, One Small Step, Search for Common Ground, and Essential Partners.

Step 7: Undertake serious deliberation and implementation of Columbia’s First Principles. Ultimately, a serious approach to resetting today would also entail a thorough reexamination of Columbia’s own First Principles, the most basic values that shape our aspirations and culture. In 2016, Columbia adopted the University of Chicago’s Principles on Freedom of Expression. However, other than including them in the University’s Rules of Conduct, it seems that they were never sufficiently vetted, deliberated, endorsed, or implemented by our community.

Furthermore, in light of the recent protests, scholars have critiqued the Chicago Principles on the basis that they are too narrow, undemocratic, and privilege free speech over other important values. Narrow because they cover only discussions (truth-seeking speech) but not deliberations (decision-making speech) or protests (disruption speech) sufficiently. Undemocratic, in that they posit individuals as the sole agent for dissent and criticism in the university, excluding forms of collective agency often taken by faculty and the student body under democratic forms of governance. Finally, the Chicago Principles view the “intellectual challenge and rigorous questioning” afforded by free speech as the primary engine promoting cognitive complexity in students, robust ideas in scholarship, and originality in science — and thus seem to privilege it above many other values in educational institutions. But at what cost?

The deep and painful fissures that became evident during the crisis at Columbia illustrate some of the moral dilemmas surrounding free speech, as well as the need for better clarification and specification of our principles. For example, should we strive to promote a culture that protects the inalienable free speech rights of students and faculty to protest and express even inflammatory versions of their political views on campus, or prioritize protecting the safety, security and dignity of the people experiencing harm by these words and deeds? Should we increase efforts to promote tolerance, peace and constructive conflict resolution at Columbia, or privilege our legacy and shared responsibility to stand and fight for what we feel is morally right and salient? Should we encourage educating about the many layers of complexity of highly-divisive issues like the histories of relations between Israelis and Palestinians when they become a source of division, or respect the necessity of moral clarity when seeking to mobilize people politically to promote social movements?

Of course, the answer is often both. But how? How do we effectively grow a culture that is deeply committed to free speech and understands it’s limits? One that promotes critical thinking and debate and belonging and dialogue across difference? One that educates on the power and consequences of civil disobedience when necessary, and offers instruction on the strategies and skills necessary to deescalate and navigate our more difficult conflicts constructively? It is one thing to adopt a set of lofty principles, while it is another altogether to infuse and operationalize them into the structures, decision-making processes and life of the 23 entities that make up the university. These are the kinds of deliberations we have yet to work through sufficiently at Columbia University.

Step 8: Track, fail, and adapt. In the end, the only way that Columbia will avoid or mitigate like catastrophes in the future is by learning to learn from our inevitable failures. This is often done by measuring, tracking and learning from the vast quantity of data by that is collected at our university. Unfortunately, Columbia had been lacking an Office of Institutional Research, which could gather and mine this information systematically, until quite recently. The need to reliably and securely track data — on bias and discrimination, safety and security, inclusion and belonging, hiring and firing, enrollment and funding, and the impact of new remedies of the climate of our schools — cannot be overemphasized.

Given our year of turmoil and the darkening domestic political storm on the horizon in the U.S., perhaps this is a moment for Columbia to carefully contemplate the ground on which we choose to stand. Research on sustainably peaceful communities through history and around the globe has found that, at their core, they all share a set of basic values, norms and rituals that promote a sense of justice and peace. Today, we have a unique opportunity to move together in this direction.

Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, and the author most recently of The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization published by Columbia University Press.

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Peter T. Coleman

Peter T Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace