Colorado State University Community, November 13, 2015
At the end of next week, many of you will be departing campus for a bit of R&R, some time at home with family, and a chance — regardless of your faiths and beliefs — to reflect on our blessings — including how fortunate we are to be members of the Colorado State community. I hope your travels are safe and that you come back ready for the push through finals and into the winter holiday break that follows. Of course, many within our community can’t travel home because of cost and distance, so I’ll start this message with a request to those of us lucky enough to call NoCo home: Keep an ear open for someone who might enjoy an invitation to share a meal in your home. In my own experience, some of our best Thanksgiving memories involve opening up our home to others who have often, in turn, opened our minds through their experiences.
We’re also about to enter the predominant religious holiday season in America; many of us will be celebrating Christmas or Chanukah, and others will be exercising the right to their own beliefs. The right to celebrate our own religious beliefs — or lack thereof — is one of the principles we hold dear — indeed, one of the principles on which this country was founded. So please, make an extra effort this year to celebrate when you observe traditions that are not yours — most importantly, celebrate the right of those who hold such traditions close to express them freely. People have died to give us this right; to fail to honor the right is to fail to honor the fallen.
This brings us to a current-day conundrum — one of the complex issues requiring the sustained debate, consideration, thought, and discourse in which American universities typically excel: the balance between the free expression of ideas (freedom of speech) and creating learning communities that promote inclusion and reject intolerance (racism, sexism, homophobia, almost every “ism” we have had the sad misfortune to coin in the fear that lurks within the human mind). Finding the right balance will require that we listen carefully for the quieter voices of our campus; voices that are not amplified by privilege and that may be muffled by having to speak through the layers of systemic racism with which we have lived for far too long. Finding the right balance will require the patience of listening and thinking blended with a sense of impatience born of the belief that Ferguson, the University of Oklahoma, and now Mizzou can drive overdue change. This is the question with which we must all struggle:
How can we fully embrace the open exchange and debate of ideas while assuring an environment in which all of us feel safe to share our ideas and experiences? To the extent we strike this balance, we demonstrate the best of an academic community and light a path for society. To the extent we accept an “or” rather than an “and” around this balance, we fail — and the path forward remains unlit.
This university graduated the first Latina in the United States to serve in a state House of Representatives, a woman who remembers not being able to sit in the center pews of her church because of her race. This university graduated a Tuskegee airman who couldn’t stay in the same hotel with his football teammates, but who was vice president of his junior and senior class. This university graduated a founder of the National Council of La Raza — a man who was only able to rent a hotel room when he first arrived in Fort Collins in the 1940s because the motel clerk thought he was from India. The experiences of these individuals highlight the challenges then and the ongoing challenges now. A heritage like this demands that we do not accept the false choice of open speech or a safe environment; it cries out that we insist on both — and more. It demands, it begs, it coaxes, and, in the end, it deserves the best that each of us has to offer.
I look forward to having these conversations with you. Safe travels.
Dr. Tony Frank