Western Connecticut University: A University of Compassion

By, Christopher Kukk

Albert Einstein stated that we as human beings should “widen our circle of compassion” in order to overcome the separateness or sense of the lack of interdependence (which he called an “optical delusion of [our] consciousness”) that divides us.  The efforts that led to our university, Western Connecticut State University (WCSU), becoming a University of Compassion have “widened our circle of compassion” through the student body, local governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as the broader academic community.  We have discovered that the growing circle of compassion that began when we started our journey only one year ago is a source of intellectual, financial and communal strength for both our institution and those who participate.

Students. Our journey began when two students approached me after a WCSU conference titled “Creativity & Compassion: How They Come Together” and asked:  Can we become a University of Compassion (UoC)?  The conference was part of the six-month prelude of activities leading to the Dalai Lama’s two-day visit to our campus.  We made becoming a University of Compassion an immediate goal so that we could give our proclamation and its accompanying commitments as a gift to His Holiness during his stay with us.  We did not know how fulfilling the journey would become.

WCSU student Kelly Stendahl helps with Hurricane Sandy clean up in the Far Rockaways.

After establishing the Creativity & Compassion Club to fulfill one commitment of becoming a UoC, the students became very involved in making a difference for others on and off campus.  They coordinated donations and volunteered time to support victims of Hurricane Sandy in The Rockaways, New York and the families of Sandy Hook, Newtown, which is just 15 minutes from our campus.  Becoming a UoC has created a wave of compassion on campus to such an extent that other students have created their own compassion projects.  For instance, two students hosted a “Compassion through Fashion” show at the Danbury Fair mall (the largest mall in the area) to raise money for Habitat for Humanity; they raised enough money to build three homes.

Community. One commitment of being a UoC is to assist the city that is home to your university in becoming a City of Compassion.  The students and I have been working with the mayor and City Council over the past 10 months in an effort to help Danbury qualify.  Recently, after hearing student ideas of compassionate activities that could be implemented throughout the city, a City Council Committee for Compassion unanimously approved the concept.  In addition, we have just begun to help one of the city’s agencies, the Department of Children and Family Services, to become the first Agency of Compassion in the country.

In April 2013, WCSU hosted a two-day “Compassion and Creativity in the Community” conference to bring together national and local leaders in business, education, government, health and spirituality for the purpose of developing ideas that would create paths to a more compassionate society.  The conference was organized by a broad community of WCSU members including alumni (four of who acted as an executive committee), staff, students and faculty.  The conference strengthened WCSU’s sense of community.  With more than 200 community members attending and participating in each of the five panels and over 20 non-governmental organizations represented, our objective was to link ideas with people and organizations that are actively creating such paths of compassion.  In short, we are constantly seeking ways of turning our discussions of compassion into actions.

2013 Compassion and Creativity Conference Committee

Academia.  We are actively seeking to grow the community of compassionate universities with the Compassion Action Network.  Being one of the first UoCs, WCSU is working with several universities across the country who want to join the ranks of compassionate educational institutions.  From Skype conversations and campus visits to attending our April conference, we have been assisting and inviting other universities such as California State East Bay, The College of New Jersey, Stanford University and the University of Hartford to become part of the network.

WCSU is also establishing, through the generosity of the Dalai Lama, a new center whose mission is to be a resource and research hub for exploring the linkages between compassion, creativity and innovation.  One of the Center’s objectives is to investigate the conjunction of the three concepts through dialogue, research and collaboration across academic disciplines, communities, campuses and other centers.

Christopher Kukk, President Barack Obama, and Scarlet Lewis
Image Credit: The White House

The Future.  While assisting our city and other universities with compassion initiatives will be a part of our immediate future, other projects such as creating a compassion index and a first-year college experience program focused on answering “what is compassion?” are being developed.  I am working with Scarlett Lewis and her foundation, the Jesse Lewis Foundation (named after her son, whose heroism in the Sandy Hook tragedy was officially acknowledged at his funeral), on a common mission to develop a K-12 curriculum that weaves values such as compassion into the Common Core Standards.  Overall, WCSU and, more specifically, the Center for Compassion, Creativity & Innovation will continue to work to widen Einstein’s circle of compassion as far into the future as possible.

Western Connecticut State University is a Charter for Compassion Partner. The Charter is the result of Karen Armstrong’s 2008 TED Prize wish. To amplify compassionate voices in the world, we invite you and your communities to watch the Charter video  and sign the Charter.

 

Christopher Kukk is a Professor of Political Science at Western Connecticut State University, a Fulbright Scholar, and founding Director of the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation. Dr. Kukk was a counter-intelligence agent for the United States Army, a research associate for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, and has provided the Associated Press, National Public Radio, The Economist magazine, NBC-TV, CableVision, and Connecticut media with analysis regarding American politics and U.S. foreign policy. He gave a talk at TEDxHayward 2013 about “building compassion.”

Note: The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent TED Prize.