Higher Education

Why Higher Education Needs Bridgebuilding Initiatives Now More Than Ever 

By Aryana Petrosky
Students gather in the classroom to have a roundtable discussion. (SDI Productions/Getty Images)

Students gather in the classroom to have a roundtable discussion. (SDI Productions/Getty Images)

One of the fastest-growing campus student groups in the United States is Turning Point USA (TPUSA). Their website boasts that “48 full-time field representatives exist to educate, support, train, and empower students through grassroots activism and peer-to-peer conversations” at over 800 college campuses.  

Charlie Kirk, the founder of TPUSA, has built a movement that exploits the fear of the “other” to increase reach and funding — their work is incredibly well-funded. TPUSA’s 2022 revenue was over $80 million, an appalling disparity compared to the limited resources available to organizations promoting bridgebuilding, pluralism, and democratic processes.  

As Interfaith America’s report “Bridgebuilding in Higher Education: A Landscape Analysis” depicts, the urgency for funding, research, and open sharing of learnings related to bridgebuilding resources on college campuses is at an all-time high. The report’s findings resonate with my experiences over the last six years working for nonprofit educational organizations — the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Redeeming Babel — to provide resources to Christian colleges and universities. 

While I worked for AEI’s Initiative on Faith & Public Life, the programs we offered explicitly aimed to bring together students from across the ideological spectrum to listen to speakers and discuss how their faith intersects with politics and public policy. As a testament to our success, we accepted nearly 50 percent of college students from the political left and 50 percent from the political right in 2019 to participate in the AEI Summer Honors Program — our flagship program.  

For this election year, I will be working to bring Redeeming Babel’s latest course, The After Party: Toward Better Christian Politics, to Christian colleges and universities. The After Party is a project rooted in friendship, led by Curtis Chang, founding Executive Director of Redeeming Babel and host of the Good Faith Podcast; David French, columnist at the New York Times; and Russell Moore, editor of “Christianity Today.” It aims to begin to mend toxic polarization among evangelical Christians.  

Our course will assist faith-based colleges and universities in setting a tone of hopeful, humble political engagement on campuses this election year. 

In both roles, I have encountered the same trends found in Interfaith America’s Bridgebuilding in Higher Education report. Included below are five points from the report that I find particularly important to highlight because of how they have tracked with my experiences working for organizations adjacent to higher education: 

  1. Campus uptake and implementation of bridgebuilding resources often depend on the interest and commitment of a single faculty or administrator. While at AEI, I noticed how interest in civil dialogue programs on college campuses frequently waxed or waned depending on the interest of a single faculty member. These faculty members often took on these responsibilities in addition to already-full workloads. In both my roles, we have tried our best to compensate these faculty through honorariums or fully expensed retreats. Still, the burden of being the sole representative of bridgebuilding initiatives on campus is too much for one person to sustain year after year.
  2. College campus administrators are hesitant to adopt bridgebuilding programs. In both of my work experiences, I have encountered college administrators who have canceled public events or who have expressed hesitancy in offering programs on their campuses because they fear that bridgebuilding or pro-civil discourse initiatives give the appearance of political bias. 
  3. Finding where to anchor a bridgebuilding resource or program in higher education can often feel like a scattershot effort. There is no single formula to determine where a bridgebuilding program will take root. I have worked with student development offices, diversity and inclusion offices, political science departments, chaplain offices, and more. Because bridgebuilding is often the interest of a single faculty or administrator, the home for a bridgebuilding resource or program varies dramatically from campus to campus, requiring extra time and energy to establish connections and implement programs.
  4. Funding for bridgebuilding (especially faith-based) programs is limited and highly competitive to secure a place in the growing sector of pro-pluralism non-profits. Our experience is that faith-based funders are either already giving their money to places like TPUSA or are too nervous they will aggravate existing political tensions among board members or donors to consider funding bridgebuilding efforts. If there is any hope of shaping the next generation to be proponents of living in a healthy pluralistic democracy that finds strength and beauty in diversity, an increase in funders — individual and grant-based — is essential for the long-term work non-profits require to succeed in this mission.
  5. A multi-year, campus-wide embedded program is a key objective, but one that still needs to be discovered for many bridgebuilding programs. Because finding a place to anchor bridgebuilding work in a university is difficult to establish and is often dependent on the interest and capacity of a single faculty member, long-term, sustainable implementation is a far-off goal. Bridgebuilding is not a 2–5-year trend or something to implement only for election years; it is a generations-long task and requires universities to understand it as such.

Redeeming Babel hopes to address some of the above points in the “Bridgebuilding in Higher Education” report through The After Party. At the institutions where The After Party is offered, we recommend that an administrator and a faculty member pair up to serve as an “Ambassador.” They will work together to find the right platform for The After Party with students, faculty, and administrators across the university. The goal is to have the content form the antidote to the toxicity experienced by many in the political world and replace it with the virtues of hope and humility rather than vitriolic partisanship. 

As I have experienced and as the Interfaith America report attests, The After Party curriculum will not be the singular — or even a silver bullet — to healing the divides that students observe and experience in their communities. The bridgebuilding effort requires many well-resourced nonprofits working together to heal our nation’s divisions. 

Aryana Petrosky

Aryana Petrosky is senior manager of partnerships and projects at Redeeming Babel, a nonprofit that creates content to equip Christians with resources for navigating a complex world. She is also a writer and a poet.