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Closing the divide in our country

Our country is struggling with a divide. This divide is not a new one; however, it has become much deeper and emotional during the recent presidential election cycle and greater since the new president took office. I have written that without leadership, this divide will lead to civil conflict or war — I believe that to be true. However, I also believe that it is not inevitable.

We concluded a presidential election cycle where many voters did not feel either candidate reflected their values. Meanwhile, those on the left and those on the right were passionate about their candidate. The results of the election have left both sides raw with emotion.

Our national leaders do not seem to be focused on trying to unify the United States. Rather, it seems like they are attempting to use the divide for political gain. That means we need to do everything we can at the local level to close the divide. As the President of Fulton-Montgomery Community College, I must consider what higher education institutions can do to help our struggling communities.

Colleges and universities have historically been sanctuaries of free speech, debate and even protests. While violent protests, where people are hurt and property is damaged, should never be tolerated, providing venues for people to express their ideas and differences of opinion is a role for colleges to play. Colleges need to host forums and community discussions that are fact-based and allow for people to express their views and explore a common ground in a manner that is productive and meaningful. This is a big challenge.

Challenge or not, colleges and universities should embrace discussions about the issues and look for ways to resolve conflicts among our students and within our communities. The country is struggling with meaningful issues. I do not believe the critical issue is which political party is in control of the Congress or occupies the White House; rather, I believe that the issues that are causing such deep emotion are struggles over the fundamental values for the country.

Value discussions are often raw with emotion; and these value conflicts are deep. They involve: the safety of our citizens versus supporting others from around the globe who have found themselves victims within their own countries; the struggle between understanding that the U.S. is primarily a country of Christians versus a dedication to the right to practice any religion in our country; the balance between fewer regulations to allow businesses to maximize profits and enough regulations to assure that the public is protected; the age old struggle between the haves and the have-nots; and, the struggle to determine if all people will have the same rights regardless of color, religion, sexual orientation or any variety of characteristics within our country.

These discussions are difficult and require facts and information. They cannot, and should not, be decided on a whim. When colleges can facilitate discussions with representatives from each side of the issue who present research and data to support their assertions, we can begin to understand other viewpoints; and, understanding is the first step toward problem solving.

For some, what I say is just educated, elite, liberal whining (I know because people have said so). I do not believe that to be true. We must have these discussions. We must use data. And, we must work together to close the divide. I believe that it is the responsibility of educational institutions to foster these discussions. If we don’t, the result will be chaos and conflict within our own communities.

Dustin Swanger is president of FMCC.

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