The grant, from an anonymous donor, will create the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation.

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - Shared civic values are under threat, authoritarianism is on the rise, and communities are losing their ability to debate constructively in the United States and around the world. Leading political thinkers, like those in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, make the case for rebuilding the common good by investing in civic education. Middlebury has now received substantial support that will enable it to further its long-standing, institutionwide efforts in this arena, and allow it to work with other institutions in the private and public sectors that are aiming to heal our divides.

The largest programmatic grant that Middlebury has ever received, this fund will enable Middlebury to apply its intellectual resources and global reach to create a cross-disciplinary collaborative devoted to conflict transformation. All of Middlebury’s entities—the College at the center, the Institute of International Studies at Monterey, the Bread Loaf School of English, the C.V. Starr Schools Abroad, and the Language Schools—will be involved in coursework and programming designed to impact education at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels. In addition, the grant will fund research projects throughout Middlebury to help faculty, staff, and students understand the dynamics of conflict and develop effective ways to teach and learn in this area.

“There is no bigger issue that exists than the growing divisiveness undermining freedom and equality everywhere,” Middlebury President Laurie Patton said. “It is harder and harder to participate in the public square. Teaching the skills to address this challenge aligns with our mission of preparing our students to make meaningful change in the world.”

The $25 million grant, from an anonymous donor, will create the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation. Its name honors the beloved philanthropist and scholar (1907–2013) who founded a program that funds college students’ projects for peace and for whom one of the Middlebury Language Schools, the Kathryn Wasserman Davis School of Russian, is named. The collaborative, which will begin this month, allows Middlebury to deepen and build on the conflict transformation work that is currently being led by faculty and staff throughout the greater Middlebury ecosystem. Funding will be provided over seven years.

A Critical Educational Effort

“The ability to work across difference that was the cornerstone of Middlebury College’s faculty-led Engaged Listening Project is evident throughout the institution,” Patton said. “It is built into the mission of the Bread Loaf School of English. The Middlebury Institute of International Studies has been having these conversations for years in the context of nonproliferation studies and the combating of terrorism. Our Language Schools regularly welcome those who learn language to bridge seemingly intractable cultural and political divides.

“With grant support, we can do more to strengthen this excellent foundation that began and will continue at the grassroots level. We can also help to build a critical educational effort to teach conflict transformation in higher education in our nation and across the world. Middlebury has the experience and the responsibility to do this.

“I’m very grateful to our donor for recognizing Middlebury’s efforts and our capacity to advance our work with this generous grant, which will fund innovative pedagogy, research, and internships,” Patton said.

Faculty, staff, and students in many parts of the institution have been closely involved in conflict transformation for some time through their teaching, research, work, learning, and community activities. Courses at the College that have incorporated conflict transformation include Can’t We Just Talk about It, led by Porter Bowman ’21.5 with support from faculty, and The Power of Words: Debating Global Issues in Italian, taught by Professor of Italian Sandra Carletti, among others.

Elsewhere at Middlebury, staff in the College’s Office of Student Life and Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion use restorative practices, a vital form of conflict transformation, in their work with students. The College’s Center for Community Engagement hosts Projects for Peace, the global program that identifies and provides grant support to student peacebuilders at Middlebury and other participating educational institutions. The Middlebury Institute offers a certificate program, Graduate Training and Research in Conflict Resolution, and is home to the Center for Conflict Studies, the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The plans for the collaborative are based in the contributions of more than 30 faculty and staff who together imagined what it would take to deepen their current initiatives. With this grant, they will take their work to the next level in the areas of deliberative dialogue, conflict studies, or learning across our many human differences and identities, which include nationality, religion, ethnicity, race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, or political affiliation.

Michelle McCauley, professor of psychology and the faculty director and acting executive director of this initiative, noted the distinction between conflict transformation and conflict mediation and reconciliation, which often proceed more pragmatically to dissolve conflicts. Conflict transformation, in contrast, assumes that conflict will always be present, but that it can be transformed toward positive and not destructive societal goals. The approach focuses on addressing the underlying conditions that give rise to conflict, preferably well in advance of hostility—and ensuring, as much as possible, a sustainable peace. Conflict transformation attempts to reshape the social structures and dynamics behind the conflict.

Conflict Transformation as a Liberal Art

“We’re capitalizing on Middlebury’s deep, existing expertise in conflict studies and intercultural competency,” McCauley said. “As a globally networked institution, we are well situated to do this work over the next seven years and to share with and learn from others immersed in these efforts.” The collaborative will embed the principles and practices of conflict transformation in the full continuum of a liberal arts education, from high school through graduate school. Middlebury will serve as the incubator for the development of a research base, pedagogical tools, and student experiences that will reach across multiple states in the United States. Middlebury will also reach out to its dozens of partner institutions around the world through its Schools Abroad.

Emily Bartels, dean of the Bread Loaf School of English, has pointed to a need to expand the strategies linking 21st-century high schools to the public square and supporting civic skills, especially those addressing strife and creating compromise. Through Bread Loaf, higher education can begin to foster a renewed commitment to building positive outcomes from conflict, she said. Teachers who attend Bread Loaf will have an opportunity to explore means of conflict resolution and to create curricula that develop these skills and sensitivities in their students.

The grant will advance initiatives at Bread Loaf in a number of ways, including funding a set of courses and a workshop series that integrate conflict and difference, supporting community change projects orchestrated within the Bread Loaf Teacher Network (BLTN), creating new branches of the BLTN Next Generation Youth Leadership Network, and catalyzing partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities. High school teachers committed to engaging in this work may apply for special fellowships annually to attend the Bread Loaf School of English.

“We are excited by the opportunity,” Bartels said, “to develop new ways of teaching, writing, and communicating across differences and of bringing that work to schools and communities across and beyond the country. This is the defining mission of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network.

“The grant gives us an exceptional occasion to learn from and with our Middlebury colleagues in these endeavors, as we dedicate ourselves collectively to creating sustainable, systemic change and building a more humane and equitable society. At this moment, nothing is more important,” she said.

Models in Teaching, in the Nation, in the World

Following high school, it is critical that students continue to learn to be effective citizens in an intensely polarized public square, said Patton. To that end, Middlebury will develop a robust program to teach college students conflict transformation-related skills and provide an academic model that other institutions of higher education can adopt. Through new areas of research, faculty, staff, and student experts will be equipped to inform and expand understanding of the causes and effects of conflict at individual, community, national, and global scales.

The grant will fund a comprehensive conflict transformation training program for up to 500 sophomores and juniors at the College. The basis of the program will be the development of a set of common approaches to managing conflict and curricular and cocurricular efforts that reach across majors, the campus, and ultimately beyond Middlebury’s communities. A faculty and staff development program will create the academic scaffolding to support student training.

Middlebury will disseminate and promote the program across its global network of colleges and universities in 40 locations in 16 countries, and through professional organizations as well as the major organizations of American higher education. Five conflict transformation research grants annually will support innovative research ideas and leverage additional external funds.

For students, the communities surrounding their colleges and universities offer further possibilities to learn about conflict transformation. By engaging with individuals where they live and work, students have a crucial opportunity to learn how local structures and social systems contribute to conflict and how they can help to resolve it.

To support these opportunities, Middlebury will create the Conflict Transformation Lab for Learning and Practice (CTLab) to implement community engagement opportunities developed annually for students and generate models for conflict transformation at the community level for wide dissemination across the country and globally. Programming in the lab will enable hundreds and potentially thousands of students from multiple institutions in higher education, as well as leaders from the public sector who are also engaged in this work, to form a dynamic network of mentors and peers.

After leaving college and as they prepare to enter the workforce, graduate students will be well positioned to inform and structure public debates, and reduce polarization and extremism in the process.

At the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, faculty and staff will create a Conflict Transformation Fellows program to provide a nexus for distinct graduate research, pedagogies, curriculum, networks, and outreach programs. The collaborative also will provide research grants open to faculty and students, and support year-round community engagement opportunities and projects for graduate students or faculty members leading groups of graduate students.

Associate Professor of TESOL/TFL Netta Avineri, one of the leaders in the initiative and an expert in cross-cultural engagement, said, “Meaningful professional formation integrates hands-on learning about a profession with relevant preparation to enter the workforce. It also necessarily includes engaging in original research, ongoing collaboration, and constructive debate for social change.”

Jeff Dayton-Johnson, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the Middlebury Institute, said the grant “will enable Middlebury to consolidate several existing strengths and transform them into a distinctive initiative that generates solutions to a pressing problem. I’m especially excited about the new opportunities it will offer to students at the Institute in areas that range from combating nuclear proliferation to learning about climate-change adaptation.”

The grant will also support global literacy, which is based on the premise that students at all levels have an obligation to become skilled at transforming conflict that involves multiple cultures and geographic borders.

A Global Consortium

To encourage students to build these skills, Middlebury will develop a global consortium of higher education institutions and through it offer a comprehensive set of international internships in conflict transformation. Middlebury’s C.V. Starr Schools Abroad will serve as the base for the consortium, which will engage colleges and universities whose students regularly attend Middlebury’s international programs. An annual international conference on the role of internships, community partnerships, and global education will explore best practices in this area.

Sarah Stroup, associate professor of political science who served as a faculty codirector of the Engaged Listening Project, noted that conflict can either be destructive or prompt positive change. “I am hopeful that Middlebury can foster leaders capable of actively building inclusive conversations marked by productive disagreements,” she said. “Middlebury has many talented faculty and staff already equipping students with a capacity to recognize, understand, and address conflict. This grant will allow us to connect and expand that work.”

“With a focus on creating an inclusive public sphere, the conflict transformation collaborative reflects much of our strategy in Envisioning Middlebury, the framework crafted by our community to guide our work into the future,” said Patton. “The traditional fabric of civil society is being torn apart with very little to replace it. The urgency is greater than ever to strive for a world of ethical citizens working toward constructive solutions.”

This text and other resources about the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Collaborative in Conflict Transformation are here. We’ll be adding to the site in the weeks and months ahead.