A conversation with the President of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, Chancellor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina Asheville, and President Emeritus of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
A primary focus of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute is to encourage productive civil discourse, a notion that may seem more nostalgic than realistic in this vitriolic political climate. But not according to the Institute’s new president, Dr. Mary K. Grant, who believes that today’s young people are eager to work collaboratively and listen to opposing views, if given the right experiences and opportunities.
A former college president and university chancellor, Grant speaks passionately about how to better support college students in their journeys toward global citizenship and why this effort is more important than ever. She hopes that education about how democracy works will motivate young people to participate in it and will enhance the value of public service. Like early childhood education, she says, the sooner we teach students why government matters, the more likely they are to become active citizens.
Inspired by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy from Massachusetts, the Kennedy Institute provides educational programming on the legislative process that simulates real Senate debate within a remarkable replica of the United States Senate chamber.
Housed between the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum on Columbia Point on Boston Harbor, the spectacular building welcomes visitors for engaging forums and interactive tours, and convenes opinion leaders from around the world and from varying perspectives.
As Grant says, it is both a place and an idea.
There are parallels to be drawn from Grant’s current position and her previous work at liberal arts institutions, starting with the fact that both involve young adults and the development of skills in critical thinking, listening, problem-solving, and empathy. Freedom of speech is a key issue in both realms. In our interview she said, “I believe a liberal arts education and the Kennedy Institute will change the world.” She did not appear to be joking.
Here is an excerpt from our conversation.
Mary Christie Quarterly: Let’s start with your days as a college president and chancellor. What are some of your takeaways for supporting students’ personal development and wellbeing?
MKG: In smaller schools (like UNC Asheville and MCLA) you get to know students in very important ways. The size and scale of these institutions allowed us to be able to engage directly with our students and talk to them about what was going on. Being able to offer that environment influenced the college selection process in many ways.
Our students were looking to be part of a community and, for their families, there was a sense that students were not going to get lost.
But beyond size, community and space play a large role in how students feel and stay connected. The student experience has come such a long way. From the dining hall experience to the resident hall experience to the range of activities that happen on campus – the important thing was for students to feel connected.
At UNC Asheville, we found that students who had high retention rates were often students who took part in programs outside the classroom, like our theater program.
Working together on something they were passionate about, like rehearsing for a production or building a set, often late into the evening, built deeper connections and stronger relationships.
Our student athletes also had high rates of retention, spending many hours studying and practicing together.
MCQ: How does a liberal arts education come into play?
MKG: In my opinion, the liberal arts are essential.
The foundational pieces of liberal arts – critical thinking, working in teams, understanding the perspective of someone who is different from you, being able to convey knowledge – are relevant to anything you do in life.
Good liberal arts schools have programs in the sciences, business, and engineering that infuse critical and creative thinking within the professional programs and disciplines. Pulling apart a problem, curiosity, asking good questions – that’s what science is all about – it’s inquiry.
How do you take an idea and bring it along and then make that into something that can improve the common good?
That’s liberal arts. It teaches you how to think.
MCQ: Are there synergies with your previous roles and the work you are doing now with the Kennedy Institute?
MKG: Yes. An example of that is when we have groups in and they’re working on a piece of legislation and they have to listen to one another, work with one another, take on another’s perspective, and hone that sense of empathy.
Senator Kennedy was passionate about the role of the United States Senate; the importance of the deliberative work of that body, and the place it holds in our government.
We want people to understand that, particularly when the legislative process appears to be broken down.
And what he was equally passionate about was bringing people together to listen to one another, to be engaged and be informed.
Sometimes, to get to the grand solution, it takes many steps along the way. Just because something may not work exactly as envisioned in that first step doesn’t mean you don’t get back in and work to the second step and the third step.
A big part of the breakdown we’re having now in civil discourse is we are just not listening. And if we are listening, it’s only in small soundbites to which we have a tendency to overreact.
We have in this country an enormous divide. People are worried and anxious about the future.
And when that happens we tend to look around and think, “who can I hold responsible?”
It’s too easy to dissolve into name-calling and shutting the process down. Once we leave the table, our opportunity for making a difference lessens.
One of the ways of getting around that is to sit down with people who think differently than you do and find out what’s driving them.
We have to seek common ground. That’s a key part of what we do here.
MCQ: Are you hopeful we will achieve this?
MKG: What we’re finding in our programs is that people are hungering for conversation. It’s similar to the concept of creating spaces on college campuses where you can intentionally connect with people.
At the Institute, we convene diverse perspectives through daily educational and visitor programs where you can talk with and listen to others who might be troubled or curious about the same things you are.
I am so impressed with this generation of young people because they are genuinely paying attention to the wider world. There is a shift on college campuses; students really want to make a difference.
We need to encourage this as a society and underscore the value of public service.
We’ve witnessed some bruising and nasty political campaigns and it can be a turn off from getting involved.
What we need to do is educate people. Remind them that public service is important and exciting and that they really can make a difference. I think we’re seeing a resurgence in that with young people.
MCQ: What is your opinion on freedom of speech on campus?
MKG: Colleges need to be places of competing and contrasting ideas. During my time as chancellor, I had students ask me if I would restrict certain speakers on campus.
I have maintained that unless there is a threat to public safety, we have to allow conversations that make us uncomfortable.
If we don’t, we are not doing our jobs as educators. Shutting down the speech doesn’t shut down the issue. You’ve got to continue to talk.
MCQ: What are some of the Institute’s goals for the future?
MKG: Our next frontier is really to figure out how to take what we are doing at the Institute and transport it beyond these walls, working in partnership with other organizations in the city, across the Commonwealth and the country.
We want to connect with those who are working on similar things but may have a different perspective.
We want to strengthen and deepen our partnerships and expand our role as a convener on important issues facing our communities.
We are not experts in all things, but we certainly know how to bring people together to engage, to listen, to debate and to work toward solving complicated problems.