After Shootings, Morgan State U. Will Train Students in Conflict Resolution

Article from this morning’s online Chronicle of Higher Education here.


By Ann Schnoebelen

After two shootings on its campus last semester, Morgan State University is taking some of the same security measures increasingly common elsewhere: more officers, a tighter campus perimeter, town-hall meetings to discuss public safety. But the small, historically black college in Baltimore is also calling on its students to take responsibility for reducing violence.

Beginning with next fall’s freshman class, Morgan State plans to make training and classroom instruction in conflict resolution a mandatory part of students’ experience. Activities and lessons to help them better understand and deal with conflict will be added to all freshman programs, from a summer orientation through a semester-long course.

The new focus was students’ idea. In September, a shooting in the student center injured a young man visiting a student, and in November, a shooting outside a dormitory wounded a Morgan State football player. Neither of the alleged gunmen was enrolled at the university.

Students were concerned, says Alvin Hill, a junior who is president of the student government. “A lot of the issues at our university that elevate into these problems,” he says, “are because students just do not know how to deal with conflict.”

After the second shooting, a group of students went to meet with administrators. The issues on their minds—substance abuse, violence, lockdowns—weren’t unique to Morgan State, says Mr. Hill. But he and his peers wanted to find an original approach to dealing with them.

“We have to be individually responsible for our campus community,” Mr. Hill says. “That was one of the things that came about talking to the injured student. We have to protect our community.”

The students saw a need, they told administrators, for the college to teach them how to effectively manage disputes.

Administrators took them seriously, says Kevin M. Banks, vice president for student affairs. “When students ask for something like this, we will not say no.”

Students, faculty, and staff are now discussing exactly what form instilling responsibility in the campus community will take. Freshman orientation over the summer will include discussions and activities on conflict mediation, alerting students to campus resources. Freshman week, at the beginning of the academic year, and an existing 16-week freshman-orientation course will draw out those conversations. The course, taught by faculty members and student advisers, typically covers basics like study skills, time management, financial aid, and institutional history.

Interacting with people from other ethnic and religious backgrounds will be a key topic of discussion, says Brenda J. James, director of the university’s Center for Academic Success and Achievement. The new material, she says, is likely to follow the orientation course’s already interactive format. To prepare, the center is asking faculty members how they engage students to get them talking about related issues.

‘Not How We Deal Here’
A mandatory curriculum on conflict resolution is a wishful “what if” for many institutions, says Richard T. Olshak, associate dean of students at Illinois State University. Fledgling efforts, smaller in scope, can struggle to become established without administrative buy-in, dedicated resources, and long-term plans, says Mr. Olshak, who runs conflict-resolution programs through Illinois State’s Office of Community Rights and Responsibilities and serves as a consultant nationally. For any conflict-resolution program to succeed, he says, students must have a hand in designing it.

That’s what Heather L. Blades has found at Missouri State University. “You can’t develop a program in a vacuum and then take it to people,” says Ms. Blades, associate director of the campus Center for Dispute Resolution, which conducts research and offers training for students. “You have to make sure you’re developing something that meets their needs.”

Conflicts are going to arise at some point, no matter what, says Charlene A. Berquist, director of Missouri State’s center. Shaping the way students respond to them is crucial, she says. “Create a culture where, when we have a conflict, students know, ‘These are the ways we talk about it and how we manage it.'”

Morgan State has looked to other colleges for guidance while reflecting on what will work best for its own population. “A lot of our students come from neighborhoods where the rule is, ‘If you do something to me, I’m going to do something worse to you,'” says Mr. Banks, the student-affairs official. As soon as they arrive on campus, he says, they need to know that attitude doesn’t meet the college’s standards. “I understand you come from ‘the hood,'” Mr. Banks says, as if to a student, “but that’s not how we deal here.”

The university’s new programs are still a work in progress and will probably involve some trial and error, administrators say. Changing how people approach and react to interpersonal conflicts is a tall order.

Mr. Hill, the student-government president, knows that. Morgan State’s efforts may not work, he says, but he and his peers felt uncomfortable not trying. “Change is taking the step with one person, who leads to another person, who leads to another person,” he says. “And it has to start with somebody.”

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