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University of Compassion provides a “true education”

Teaching personal development and ethical responsibility as part of the learning experience
University Business, October 2013

“The function of education,” according to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

While in their mission statements many universities aspire to be leaders in scholarship and ethics, too few institutions try to give equal weight to both sides of Dr. King’s equation. Service-learning projects, for example, are excellent but they are usually “add-ons,” and not part of a broader university strategy to blend intellectual and character leadership.

At Western Connecticut State University, we are weaving together the two parts of Dr. King’s “true education” equation through the concept of compassion.

I feel fortunate to work at a university where some organizations are created with the purpose of fulfilling principles that also reflect Dr. King’s ideas: “Empowering students to attain the highest standards of academic achievement, public and professional services, personal development, and ethical conduct is our fundamental responsibility.”

Recently, we formed the Creativity & Compassion student club and established the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation, which will act as a research and resource hub for our local and national communities.

As one of two universities in the United States recognized as a compassionate university by the international Compassionate Action Network (the other is Spalding University in Kentucky), we are fulfilling our mission of providing a “true education” for our students. This goal has also become a source of intellectual, financial, and communal strength for both our institution and partners.

Path to compassion

We decided to apply to become a University of Compassion during an interdisciplinary conference examining the nexus between creativity and compassion. At the end of the conference (part of a six-month prelude of activities leading to the Dalai Lama’s visit to our campus last October), two students asked me if we could lead an effort to designate us a UoC. The question was the start of not only our UoC journey but also several intellectual ventures intricately involving students.

One was a book entitled “Creativity & Compassion: How They Come Together” that included student works and articles by experts. In April 2013, we hosted another interdisciplinary conference titled “Compassion and Creativity in the Community.” Questions asked by the public led the dialogue between international, national, and local experts in government, religion, business, medicine, and education. A book inspired by that conference is expected to be published in early 2014.

The UoC designation has also inspired courses that weave the study of compassion through different disciplines. There will be a student-led TEDx event called “Compassion and Creativity,” too.

An unexpected byproduct of becoming a UoC and creating the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation (C3I) is the financial strength generated by our alumni and business leaders. Our alumni came out in force to donate their time to coordinate our April 2013 conference and related activities. They also started to give monetarily to C3I.

Local businesses have assisted C3I by underwriting its activities, donating facilities, and helping with promotion, fundraising, and outreach. Business leaders have been one of the strongest pillars supporting our construction of a UoC.

Community ties

Students and I have also met with local political leaders to help Danbury, our home, become a city of compassion. That has led to working with other organizations in our area, such as the Department of Children and Family Services.

From the Portuguese Cultural Center donating its facility for the April 2013 conference to helping organizations in nearby Sandy Hook, our university has deepened its interdependence with our local communities in unique and amazing ways. Compassion has knocked down the proverbial wall between town and gown.

If a small public university can become a UoC, any university can make it happen. Let’s find out how much the multiplication of “intellect and character” equals in our world.

Christopher L. Kukk is a professor of political science at Western Connecticut State University. WCSU is advising Stanford University, Central Connecticut State University, and the University of Hartford on the steps needed to become a compassionate university.


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