Promoting Civility and Discussing Controversial Issues in Class

January 30, 2017

Dear St. Thomas students, faculty and staff,

I am delighted to welcome all who have been away during the university's J-term back to campus!   As of today, we are all (including our law school, which started spring semester on January 17) embarking on our 2017 spring semester. 

New restrictions on travel and entry into the United States have raised questions in some minds.  First, I want to say that to the best of our knowledge, we do not believe there are any St. Thomas students, faculty, or staff who are outside the U.S. and experiencing difficulty returning.  If anyone has information to the contrary, please contact Lori Friedman, our Director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, as soon as possible.  In addition, if anyone potentially affected by these new restrictions is planning overseas travel, please consult with our Office of International Students and Scholars for the most up-to-date information before embarking on your trip.

Second, our future actions as a campus will be governed by our dedication to our mission as a Catholic university to uphold the principles of Catholic social teaching and to advance the common good, as well as our requirement to obey the laws of our country in order not to put any member of our community at risk. Thus, we will take every lawful opportunity to advocate for, protect, and care for those who are most vulnerable and in need.

Yesterday, Pope Francis reminded us that all nations must focus on "service to the poorest, the sick (and) those who have abandoned their homelands in search of a better future for themselves and their families."

"In putting ourselves at the service of the neediest," Pope Francis said, "we will experience that we already are united; it is God's mercy that unites us." 

I call on all of us, as members of the St. Thomas community, to unite in solidarity for each one of us, each of whom is a unique creature of God.

Again, welcome!  I wish you a wonderful and fruitful spring semester!

All the best,

President Sullivan

November 9, 2016

 Dear St. Thomas community,

Some in our community woke up this morning feeling very disappointed and fearful about the future, and some woke up this morning feeling very hopeful about new possibilities.  Many, if not most, also are experiencing a sense of uncertainty about America’s new leadership and the policies and actions they will pursue.

However, having just returned last night from travel abroad, I believe we are blessed to live in this country ruled by democracy (despite how messy and, unfortunately, nasty the process can be) and blessed to have a right to express our choices through voting.

In this time of uncertainty, we are comforted to know we are part of a St. Thomas community that promotes and respects the dignity of all its members.  We are part of a community that is committed to advancing the common good and to upholding our convictions of pursuit of truth, academic excellence, faith and reason, dignity, diversity, personal attention, and gratitude. 

In this time of uncertainty, it is important that we are here for each other.  I encourage you to reach out to one another and share your hopes and fears, and to always do so with a spirit of empathy and respect.  Share with one another and pray with one another.  We are called as a community to live our values and to be engaged in creating a hopeful future for our country. 


Julie Sullivan, Ph.D.


After a contentious and divisive election, how can we maintain our classrooms as places where the dignity of each student, regardless of political viewpoint, will be respected? How can we model openness and care, critical thinking and compassion?

Below are some helpful ideas from Social Work faculty to keep in mind while preparing for potentially difficult conversations regarding the election:

  1. This election generates tremendous emotion – something we are not well-trained to manage in the classroom as teachers. Students will likely express feeing angry, scared; you may not understand those feelings but can communicate that they are valid. (A simple reflection that acknowledges the feeling can help move the conversation along, e.g., “I hear the anger in your voice. Does anyone else want to share?”). If necessary, you can let students know they are free to step out of class for a minute or two to re-focus.
  2. Differences of opinion need not give rise to hate or oppression. Keep in mind that students identifying as politically conservative may feel they are being lumped in with those who are promoting hate speech and violence. Generalizations about “Trump supporters” and “Clinton supporters” can work to silence and marginalize students on both sides.
  3. Actively seek and create areas of common ground – where to people share beliefs? Experiences? How can we begin conversations from those places?
  4. Create an exercise around making meaning of difficult experiences. For people on both sides, the election illuminated harsh realities about our country and promoted divisiveness. How can we create meaning and identify purpose in the aftermath? Have students identify their own ideas for creating positive change (respond to this statement: “Now I am going to work harder for this: __________. I will do this by taking the following action over the next several days: __________.”)

(see also: “Faculty checklist: Steps to respond to classroom incivility”)

Proactive strategies – laying the ground

  • Set expectations early; let the class know if you are discussing controversial issues. Establish discussion ground rules for discussion during first week of class (see Brookfield guidelines for developing ground rules)
  • Model civil behavior in your own actions, language, and demeanor, and model for them ways to disagree respectfully.
  • Integrate ice-breakers and community building exercises throughout the semester but especially during the first few weeks
  • Develop ways to support students learning each others’ names
  • It’s ok to acknowledge that you had an emotional reaction to election; normalize strong feeling for students while modeling how to moderate emotion and reframe into useful dialogue.
  • Link discussion to course learning objectives and our mission to cultivate critical thinking. Why are we doing this?
  • Cultivate active listening (see discussion exercises from Stephen Brookfield)
  • Practice structured debate; have student practice taking positions they disagree with (empathy building)

When a “hot moment” happens unexpectedly

  • A student may try to initiate discussion about the election at a time when you’re not prepared for it. You can acknowledge why the student is interested and explain that you want to think further about how to engage the topic carefully and return to it later.
  • If incivility occurs – intervene. Communicate clearly and openly that these behaviors violate our St. Thomas Convictions and won’t be tolerated.
  • Acknowledge emotions, e.g., “It’s not unusual for people to get passionate/emotional about this topic, but we’ve agreed to discuss these issues in a civil manner”
  • Revisit your discussion ground rules to restore civility
  • If you use mindfulness meditation in class, take a 2-3 minute meditation break
  • Try 5 minutes of free-writing; allow students to share if willing
  • If possible, try opening up discussion again, after the cooling down period
  • It’s ok to return later to a hard moment. Not everything has to be solved right when it happens. If you are too uncomfortable or unable to address in the moment, say “I need some time to think about this. We’ll come back to it in the next class.”
  • At the end of class -- always provide an assessment opportunity; a good model is Stephen Brookfield’s Critical Incident Questionnaire

Revisiting in the next class session

  • Review the results of the assessment in a way that allows people to be anonymous
  • Make the controversy a teachable moment
  • Provide structured way for students to express themselves; see Stephen Brookfield discussion strategies for ideas
  • Provide an assessment opportunity at the end of class (e.g., Brookfield’s Critical Incident Questionnaire

Keep in mind. . .

  • There may be uncivil side conversations going on outside of your hearing but affecting nearby students. Give students ample opportunity to communicate with you privately about class dynamics (a good tool is Brookfield’s Critical Incident Questionnaire) and if you discover uncivil behaviors have occurred, communicate clearly and openly to the whole class that these behaviors violate our St. Thomas Convictions and won’t be tolerated.
  • Whatever political beliefs you hold, you are responsible for creating an inclusive environment where students feel free to disagree, where they can practice thinking critically, and where they have room to grow intellectually. What you model is crucial – your comportment, your compassion, your commitment to pursuing truth and upholding the dignity of each member of our community.

St. Thomas faculty members share some assignments they have found to be effective in engaging controversy in the classroom.

Dr. Dominic Longo: Dialogue prompts for groups of three and medium-stakes writing assignment

Dr. Heather Shirey: Using "Brave Space" to acknowledge that we all come to the conversation from different places, while at the same time we have to find some shared ground.

Faculty Developer Kerry Ann Rockquemore provided this advice aimed at faculty of color living through difficult racist moments in our culture and experiencing "battle fatigue." Faculty who are on the front lines and teaching topics related to politics, social change, and current events may feel similarly after the recent election. All faculty can benefit from taking a moment to focus on self-care, on maintaining one's physical and psychological balance.

Dear Kerry Ann: Radical Self-Care - National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity

C‌onsider joining a Faculty Learning Community:

Call on our teaching consultants and/or faculty providing post-election conversation assistance.

Resources for Supporting Our Campuses in Politically Fraught Times  Sometimes local, national, and international events send shock waves through our communities that most of us cannot ignore and that all of us—students, faculty, and staff—experience in different ways. Although we can never predict how to respond in such moments, here are a handful of resources that might help with framing conversations both in and outside of the classroom.

The horrific events in Charlottesville bring forward, once more, compelling teaching opportunities. Our student surveys show that students want to have real conversations in the classroom about important moments like this one, but faculty members often feel unprepared. CAS Dean Yohuru Williams has noted regarding the removal of confederate monuments: “there are no two sides about it.” His commentary provides some helpful context for those seeking to learn more, and we have aggregated several more resources and ideas for teaching after Charlottesville.

10 "In the moment" responses for student incivility (©2016 Effective & Efficient Faculty, Chavella T. Pittman, PhD)

Incivility Resource List (Effective & Efficient Faculty, Chavella T. Pittman, PhD)

Faculty Checklist: Steps to Respond to Classroom Incivility

Critical Incident Questionnaire Template

Resources from Counseling and Psychological Services

Controversial Issues Bibliography

From University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching: “Returning to the Classroom after the Election:”

From Yale University Center for Teaching and Learning: Managing Controversy

University of Michigan (nd). Guidelines for Discussion of Racial Conflict and the Language of Hate, Bias, and Discrimination.

Warren, L. Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom

Yale University (2008). Teaching Controversial Subjects

Pruegger, V. and Berenson, C. Teaching Controversial Issues: What, Why, and How

Resources for teaching tolerance

Not in Our Town movement to stop hate: (see especially “Not on our campus”)

Teaching Tolerance:

Navigating Difficult Conversations

A November 2016 panel of St. Thomas faculty and students share their ideas for navigating difficult political conversations in the classroom, following the election. To view the video, please enter your St. Thomas username and password below.