Never Stop Learning: A Memo to the Campus Community
Posted on October 2, 2017
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen our society more politically divided, our national dialogue less civil, or our differences seemingly more stark and less tolerated. Perhaps driven by the national election and the media on both sides of the political aisle, those tensions have seeped into every aspect of daily life. Family gatherings have become tense (I have a brother who voted for our president and I’m pretty sure he is now convinced I’m clueless about the world – he might even use saltier language….). Social media is fraught territory. And the workplace has not been spared.
Last Thursday, Amelia Manning and I had breakfast with a group of our employees who were willing to engage in a discussion around how our current climate is impacting the work environment. Political stance aside, some expressed concern about the extent to which we value and create opportunity for diverse perspectives, particularly given the reality that most institutions of higher education tend to be more liberal in their leanings. While they were too kind to say it, I fear they recognize that they are stuck with a university president that is….well, let’s just say that those employees might agree with my brother. It was a terrific meeting and I can’t thank the attendees enough for their candor, their thoughtfulness, and their time. While we all expressed unwavering defense of any individual’s free speech rights, we all agreed that we’d welcome a break from political discussions in our workplace. They seem too fraught these days and we have important work to do for our students.
I shared that my job has a political dimension that I can’t entirely escape and that when stakeholder groups we serve, whether LGBTQ or people of color or international students, feel threatened or unsafe, I have an obligation to speak out. However, their feedback to my campus memo in the aftermath of Charlottesville prompts me to more carefully think about the examples I draw upon and the language I use and to make sure I avoid statements that are too broad brush or overlook the intricacies of often complex topics. I always say a good day includes learning something and our breakfast did that for me. I often remark on how much I like and respect the people with whom I work and that was never more true than last week, even if we disagree on any number of political questions (that is diversity, after all).
We are working hard this year on helping our campus community better navigate difficult discussions. Those are not likely to go away any time soon, but we can certainly return to a more civil discourse; that starts with respect for the others, asking questions and seeking understanding, and recognizing our own biases with some humility. Jada Hebra, Chief Diversity Officer, has been organizing workshops on campus and we’ll schedule those at our other locations as well. These include:
- Lunch ‘n Listens: ‘Free Speech Isn’t Free’ ;
- Managing ‘Hot’ Moments;
- Inclusivity in the Workplace.
We’ll work to give our faculty and staff better tools for working with students, to make sure we are not trying to persuade students to our way of thinking, but to give them the critical thinking tools to form their own opinions, based on evidence, rigorous thinking, and reflection (including their experiences and values, as well as those of others). I think of one of our adjuncts who taught a course on the death penalty and on the last day, students had to beg her to reveal her own opinion on the matter (and many guessed wrong). It was more important to give them the knowledge and tools to form their own opinions – when it comes to students, that’s what we should be doing, in my view.
Every president and CEO in the country grapples with what to say when we confront genuinely tough problems entangled in deeply held systems of beliefs. For people across the political spectrum, many of the issues feel moral and even existential, so emotions run high. While I have an obligation to speak up from time to time, especially on behalf of our students, my breakfast companions, ever as dedicated to those students as I am, helped me remember to frame those communications in ways that include instead of exclude, and to communicate respect for those whose views are different than mine. I’m grateful.
Well stated, and as always, I appreciate your humility, your candor and your deep compassion for all.