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Debra Mashek might still be teaching college if she hadn't attended an eye-opening academic conference a few years ago.

One of the speakers asked a roomful of her peers, all social psychologists, to stand if they were politically conservative.

Out of several hundred attendees, "one person stood up," Mashek remembers. "It was striking."

In February, Mashek left what she calls her dream job, as a psychology professor at California's Harvey Mudd College, to devote herself to a new mission: bringing "viewpoint diversity" to the United States' campuses.

She's now executive director of Heterodox Academy, a bipartisan group of professors and graduate students who believe that higher education needs a refresher course in the art of "constructive disagreement."

The New York-based advocacy group, which was founded in 2015, is part of a fledgling movement pushing back against what many see as the chilling of dissent on campus. "Colleges and universities are grappling with this," she said. "Nobody thinks there are obvious simple solutions."

The goal of her group, said Mashek, is not to promote any political agenda — or demand some kind of "affirmative action" for conservatives on campus. Instead, she said, the members share a concern that too much groupthink is bad for higher education, and that colleges can and should do something about it.

As the group says on its website: "When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged. To reverse this process, we have come together to advocate for a more intellectually diverse and heterodox academy."

To that end, Heterodox has launched a free interactive program called OpenMind. It's designed, according to its website, to "cultivate reasoned conversations, deeper empathy, [and] the ability to see beyond one's own perspective."

Mashek said it's especially relevant at a time when almost half of college students say they're reluctant to talk about race or politics in class, according to her group's 2017 Campus Expression survey. "They're worried about censure from their peers," she said. That, she believes, is where faculty can step in and make a difference.

OpenMind, which is offered as an app and a workshop, is meant to be a guide for leading discussions on divisive issues. "I call it cultivating the habits of hearts and minds," Mashek said. The app includes five interactive exercises to put students in the right frame of mind, such as: "Learn a little bit of psychology to see the tricks the mind plays on us, making us all prone to be self-righteous, overconfident, and quick to demonize 'the other side.' "

The workshops lay out a road map for ensuring civil exchanges on polarizing issues ("Take turns stating your opinion … acknowledge that you may be wrong … Ask questions, try to understand why they believe it.") They also encourage everyone to take a turn arguing the opposite side ("try to be as convincing as possible.")

Seeking common ground

While some may see it as an exercise in common courtesy, Mashek said the program is already striking a chord on many campuses. Since OpenMind was launched in November, it's been incorporated into dozens of classes in 10 countries, she said. And the staff is "overwhelmed with requests right now."

At the University of Minnesota and elsewhere, a few brave souls have taken it on themselves to try to bring opposing sides together. One club at the U, called the Minnesota Bipartisan Issues Group, offers students of all political stripes a forum to face off on hot topics like immigration or gun control.

"Our goal is really to get people together to talk who wouldn't normally talk about politics together, and maybe try to find some common ground," said Jake Holicky, a 20-year-old sophomore and the group's treasurer.

The bipartisan club, which was founded in 2013, typically draws about 20 to 30 people to its weekly meetings — on a campus of more than 47,000 students.

Small as it is, Holicky said it offers something students won't often find in other campus clubs.

"They're all about getting people together who think the same way," he said. "We believe you have to balance that, where you have to interact with people you don't agree with."

Similar bipartisan groups have popped up on other Minnesota campuses, including the University of St. Thomas, Carleton College, St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict.

The grass roots movement is spreading across the country, according to Rogé Karma, co-founder of BridgeUSA, a national group that helps students bridge the political divide on campuses. The problem, he said, "is not a lack of moderate voices. It's that people across the spectrum just don't know how to engage anymore."

'Through other people's eyes'

Today, he said, college students need help to learn how to disagree with civility.

On that, there seems to be little disagreement.

"They are not doing themselves any favors if they don't go and hear other viewpoints, and if they're not open to listening," said John Coleman, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the U. That's the point of a liberal arts education, he notes. "You are developing the ability to see the world through other people's eyes."

Having more face-to-face debates, he said, may be one way to encourage that. "Maybe we haven't done as much of that as we could," he said.

Students can only benefit from the exposure, he added.

"You want them to wrestle with ideas that are being well articulated," he said. "They might learn something. And change their view."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384