“Informed Citizens to Better Serve Us All”—Perspective-Taking and Civic Learning at Pomona College
The Pomona Student Union (PSU) has never shied away from controversial discussions—so long as that controversy is focused on ideas, and so long as the discussion remains civil. Student-founded and entirely student-run, the PSU is dedicated to promoting open dialogue about issues that aren’t being talked about, including those that are contentious or sensitive. “We want to get a community of faculty, students, and staff talking about an issue,” says Rose Green, a senior at Pomona and current president of the PSU. “We want to inform people about issues, present multiple viewpoints and perspectives that we think aren’t discussed enough … and we help inform people so they can better make decisions and discuss the issues knowledgeably.”
The PSU advances the perspective-taking and engagement with diverse viewpoints AAC&U advocates for as part of its Core Commitments. As AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider writes, “The ability to engage and learn from perspectives different from one’s own is a crucial catalyst for intellectual and moral growth.” PSU’s commitment to this kind of open dialogue and civic engagement has garnered broad support from faculty and students alike. Though only eight years old, the PSU has become a prominent organization on Pomona’s campus, keeping a busy calendar of events that range from debates between national political figures to small group discussions between professors and students in dorm lounges. What’s consistent in all of these events is a critical interrogation of ideas from disparate viewpoints, says Michael Levine, a recent graduate of Pomona and former president of the PSU. “We provide a service that is essentially related to the academics on campus,” Levine says. As the group’s website puts it: “We create informed citizens to better serve us all.”
Developing an Autonomous Student Organization
The PSU was founded in the fall of 2003 as the United States debated whether to invade Iraq. Students and faculty alike appeared to be almost universally opposed to a war. But juniors Benjamin Waterman and Andrew Tyler wondered if some students held contrary views but were afraid to speak up, Levine says. The two students had studied abroad at Oxford and attended the meetings and debates of the Oxford Union, and they wanted to see discussion of the imminent war occur in a similarly substantive and respectful manner. Using the Oxford Union debates as a template, they organized a debate between two professors from neighboring Claremont McKenna College on President Bush’s agenda to democratize the Middle East.
The success of the event, which was attended by over 200 students, inspired Waterman and Tyler and impressed the college administration enough to provide some seed funding for a new student organization. The PSU was established with a small executive board and three committees that generated event ideas and organized logistics. A faculty advisory board was also formed to provide guidance, but it holds no decision-making power, stresses Gary Kates, a professor of history and former dean of the college who serves on the board.
An increasingly active calendar of discussions and debates emerged. Early on, events were skewed toward economic and policy topics such as the state of post-war Iraq and, later, the Great Recession, but soon the group began to take on more introspective topics, such as the general education requirements at Pomona. The PSU also began offering events of different sizes and formats as well. Large-venue debates between prominent figures have remained a staple, but these events are supplemented by book clubs, student-faculty dinners, and evening “Snackussions”—small gatherings, usually held in dorm lounges with snacks provided by the PSU, led by professors with expertise in the topic of discussion. The PSU also hosts a series of Social Debates, where students can meet over beers to debate the relative merits of Lady Gaga and Rhianna, or whether Americans should pay more attention to soccer.
PSU Director of Finance Joseph Tseng (far left) moderates a discussion between former California Governor Gray Davis, UC-San Diego Professor Thad Kousser, and Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters (left to right). The February 2010 event addressed question “Is California Governable?” Photo courtesy of Pomona College
Promoting Critical Thinking
As the PSU has evolved, policy and economics are still important topics of discussion, but PSU events increasingly cover a diverse range of subjects, says Julius Taranto, the PSU’s vice president of outreach and development. The organization is concentrating its efforts on “topics that aren’t being discussed. That may include economics or politics, but there are valuable debates and discussions in other areas, such as the intersection of the arts and intellectual property law.” The PSU is also making a conscious effort to recruit a more diverse membership that represents all majors and constituencies on campus, he says.
Levine notes that PSU events also have the potential to bring together students from different majors and generate discussions that cut across academic disciplines. He recalls a late night Snackussion between a physics professor and a group of students on the subject of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. “It was so cool to see twenty students from completely different disciplines that elected to spend a Thursday night with a physics professor… I think it gets to a notion that the PSU advocates a different type of intellectual inquiry.” Central to that notion is a rigorous critical assessment of all subjects and positions, says Green. She credits her work with the PSU for making her “more critical of any idea—I want to hear multiple sides of any issue and really get a chance to ask questions and make decisions.”
While Green and other members stress that the PSU does not advocate for any particular position or viewpoint, the groups early focus on politics and support for conservative viewpoints (usually minority positions on the predominately liberal campus) helped prompt a shift in thinking at Pomona—one that is particularly important given Pomona’s position as one of the five Claremont Colleges, says Kates. The Claremont Colleges are five contiguous undergraduate institutions, each campus touching the others, with most classes and student organizations open to all students. Pomona and bordering Claremont McKenna have very different reputations, Kates says, with Claremont McKenna being regarded as more politically conservative and economically libertarian. In the past, Kates says, some members of the Pomona community maintained that the association with Claremont McKenna was enough to expose Pomona students to a diverse range of political and cultural views, but the PSU represents a shift away from that thinking. “What it said was that if you have any integrity on your own campus, you can’t outsource something like this—you can’t outsource ideological viewpoints,” Kates says. “We have to do this on our own, and it will make us a stronger campus.”
Learning from Controversy
The program has not been without its missteps, though. In 2007, PSU invited to campus Marvin Stewart, president of the anti-immigration Minutemen Project, for a debate with Jacob Hornberger about immigration in the United States. Stewart’s presence sparked outrage amongst many students and faculty, and the question and answer session was interrupted by protesting students, many of whom felt the event failed to acknowledge immigrants themselves as people whose voices should be heard.
Green and Levine attribute this reaction in part the PSU’s failure to reach out to and collaborate with other student groups prior to the event. “We’ve learned a lot from that,” Green says. “It’s really about how you plan the debate—if you’re planning something sensitive, there’s always going to be reaction, but we’re careful to do very thorough research about the topic, we make sure to speak on campus to administrators, to faculty, to other student groups who may be concerned about the topic.”
This is one area where faculty advisors can be of assistance, says Cecilia Conrad, dean of the college and a member of the PSU’s faculty board. “I think it’s easy for students to go for the public persona, the people who show up on the news, and not necessarily the people who have collected the data or done analysis in a serious way, so helping them identify those people is important.”
But while the PSU benefits from faculty guidance, it also demonstrates the benefits of letting students take the initiative on important campus issues, Conrad says. “We were just reviewing some data from a student survey about diversity issues on campus, and one of the things that emerged from that was how much the students wanted to be in control of the conversation on campus, and that they felt conversations were more effective when it was a conversation among students around issues that they felt were important. The PSU is an example of that working well.” Her approach, she says, is to “think of the students the way you would work with colleagues. You build relationships with colleagues and you can nudge, make suggestions, and be influential without being a dictator.”
Kates agrees that faculty should be available to the students, but stay out of student organizations as much as possible. Asked how else faculty and administrators can nurture student initiatives like the PSU, both Kates and Conrad immediately named funding. “Stable funding, and faculty should back off more than they’re used to—that’s a winning combination,” Kates adds. “Faculty just can’t start something like this.”
Despite their autonomy, PSU members see their organization as a part of the academic community on campus. Faculty involvement in PSU events, and the knowledge and engagement students take away from those events, translates into richer classroom discussions, Green says—discussions that are grounded in the kind of civic engagement and analytical and integrative thinking AAC&U advocates for in its essential learning outcomes for liberal education. Hannah Yung, a junior committee chair, agrees that PSU has a role to play in shaping the academic climate at Pomona. “I think that what we do at the PSU is a part of our education,” Yung says. “We’re learning [at Pomona] how to think for ourselves and we’re gaining a range of experiences that will help us in whatever we do later in life. Everything that the PSU does is firmly rooted in those same goals.”
Read more about the PSU at their website. You can also read more online about AAC&U’s essential learning outcomes and civic learning and democratic engagement initiatives.