October 19, 2020 

Dear members of the CSU community,

CSU’s 20th Annual Diversity Symposium starts this morning and it has sparked significant controversy. I have received emails and calls alerting me to concerns regarding one of the Symposium’s keynote speakers, Dr. Melina Abdullah. The Symposium is organized by the Vice President for Diversity’s Office and a Symposium Planning Committee. The President’s office was not consulted this year regarding the selection of this keynote speaker or any other sessions in the Symposium. Nonetheless, I understand that as leader of this university I will be held responsible for Dr. Abdullah’s invitation, and thus I am sending this letter to clarify matters.

In the last few days, I have learned that Dr. Abdullah is a well-regarded Black Studies scholar and also founder of a local Black Lives Matter chapter in Los Angeles, known for her activism and justice work. However, I have also learned that there are CSU community members who are strongly committed to the Black community needs and recognize Dr. Abdullah’s expertise as an anti-racist scholar, but who are also troubled by views she has expressed on social media and by her appearances at events held by the Nation of Islam because of the organization’s well-documented history of extreme antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ+ views.

Given this, I fully understand why some in our community want to hear from her and why others insist it was a mistake to invite her to speak at CSU. Some members of our community view her as a champion of diversity, inclusion and equity values. Others, particularly members of our Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities, see her invitation as undermining equal protections and lending legitimacy to figures and organizations standing in opposition to CSU values, specifically our position against antisemitism and homophobia and in support of Jewish inclusion and the rights of our LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff.

As President, let me be clear that I unequivocally condemn the racist, antisemitic, and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric of the Nation of Islam, which is recognized as a hate group by most experts. I will always stand up for our Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities to ensure they receive equal protections against hate. CSU is a special place that for many years has stood for diversity, inclusion and equity of all our students, faculty and staff. However, we are not perfect, and until I created it this past June, we did not have a Task Force on Jewish Inclusion and the Prevention of Antisemitism. I encourage you all to read the SOURCE story that came out of my office when the Task Force was created; you can also find their Presidential Charge here.

I am proud of the work the Task Force has done already to promote Jewish inclusion on campus and to elevate our understanding of the horrors of antisemitism. I remind everyone: seventy-five years ago, antisemitism resulted in the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews. Antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews—antecedents to the ones promoted by Nation of Islam today—contributed directly to this genocide.

It is also disheartening to see the Black and Jewish communities in this terrible position, in a context in which it seems sides should be taken. The Black and Jewish communities have a long history of collaborating for justice and civil rights, and this work must continue if racism and antisemitism are to be truly repudiated. In this spirit, I thank all of you who have already registered for the Diversity Symposium for your continued engagement with these issues, especially during these difficult times. I know that you will come away enriched and challenged by all the sessions you attend, whether those include the keynote by Dr. Abdullah, the other keynote by Rams Read author Claudia Rankine, or the session 9 a.m. Tuesday on Interrogating the spectrum of Jewish Identities at CSU and beyond.

As a university community, we must understand that sometimes our values can only be demonstrated under circumstances that challenge them. CSU can protect First Amendment rights while at the same time use its own free speech to identify and condemn hate bigotry when it appears. Our commitment to free speech has brought us an important opportunity to demonstrate this principle in the 20th Annual Diversity Symposium. This is the message that I recently shared in an essay included in the CSU System’s comprehensive packet of resources around free speech: Your Voice. Your Vote. Your Rights. I urge you to read my call on that site for the engaged, inclusive discourse that only a university campus can truly foster.

Let’s lift our voices against hate and for justice.

Yours truly,