Thoughts As We Begin a New Academic Year, August 17, 2017
I had intended this as a sort of “pre-welcome back” message as we head into our convocation and Ram Welcome weekend, but the events of this past weekend have, unfortunately, pushed this message in a different direction.
First, close to home: Many of us are reeling at the loss of our dear friend and colleague, Vice President for Enrollment and Access Melissa Trifiletti, who passed away Sunday following a two and a half year struggle with cancer. Every first-year student we welcome to campus this week is here because of the hard work of Melissa and her team to build our entering class. It was a challenge she loved – the opportunity to open doors and welcome people into the academic community that she cherished. She was a consummate professional and a remarkable person. A memorial fund has been established in her honor at https://advancing.colostate.edu/MELISSATRIFILETTI, and we will share information about services as it becomes available. Thanks to Leslie Taylor for taking on the duties of Interim VPEA, and please join me in sending our love and condolences to Melissa’s family – and to our VPEA family, as well.
The second part of this message also hits close to home, but for different reasons. This past weekend, we bore witness to a national disgrace – a white supremacist rally that began as a glorification of racism and hate and ended, as such things nearly always have, in violence and chaos, including the killing of a counter-protestor and the death of two law-enforcement officers in a helicopter crash.
One cannot watch the images of the march without reflecting on our national history and the scourge of white supremacy; a stain upon humanity that we witness with revulsion. Theirs is a cowardly message of violence and terrorism, backed up by generations of history in which the symbols they wore and the flags they carried accompanied – indeed, signaled – the murder, enslavement and disenfranchisement of millions of human beings. The existence of the land-grant university is, in itself, a rebuke to their ideology, a bold statement that public education – the liberation of the human mind – is the cornerstone of liberty for all of us.
In that spirit, I would like to send a strong message to all of our students, staff and faculty: This campus welcomes you, and we welcome your race, your culture, your religion, your gender, your heritage, your history, your ideology. We reject those hate-fueled “isms” that bring nothing but sorrow and destruction and terror – bad ideas that have been tested by history and science and conscience and proved wrong over and over again. We stand together, in peace and non-violence, but with courage and forthrightness, against those who would use the public forum to incite violence and deprive the Constitutional rights of others.
The question of how any campus community responds “appropriately” to what our souls tell us are vile challenges to human dignity is more than worthy of our debate as a society and an academic community; it may well be among the most important topics we wrestle with in our lifetimes. And there is no easy answer. The First Amendment is the bedrock of academic freedom – but even more so, it is the foundation of our nation. It is what makes a free and independent press possible. It offers protection to the singular voices of people fighting against corruption and the status quo. It is our strongest and most essential weapon in the face of tyranny. For those of us in higher education, it is no less than the foundation of all we do. It is what allows a faculty member to advance knowledge and conduct research that challenges the status quo. It is what has allowed students to question university policies on issues ranging from civil rights and in loco parentis to apartheid and environmental sustainability. It is, indeed, a sacred trust.
But our obligation to the Constitution doesn’t relieve us of our obligation to ensure the safety of our students and the advocacy of a civil society, and other institutions have recognized that certain groups and events create real concerns for the safety of students, faculty, staff, and the public. The First Amendment protects the rights of free speech and peaceful assembly; it does not protect or excuse violence or criminal actions. CSU, as an institution, strives to ensure through the work of the CSUPD – guided by our Principles of Community and a staunch dedication to the welfare of our people – that all at CSU, but particularly those who are most vulnerable, have staunch protection from criminal activity and full access to the system of justice. CSU, as an institution, will always hold up our Principles of Community in counter to anyone who seeks to divide and terrorize. As an institution, CSU cannot promise to shield anyone from words or ideas that may be damaging and destructive – but we, as individuals, can speak out against those words and ideas and reveal them for what they are. We, as individuals, can stand with the marginalized in our community and offer support and strength. And CSU, as an institution, can and will do the same.
Over the course of the coming year, we will be talking a lot about the First Amendment and freedom of speech as a campus community. Faculty Council Chair Tim Gallagher is already working on a more in-depth written analysis of the implications for our campus of such First Amendment challenges, and we will share this with the community broadly. At our upcoming leadership forum with all academic department chairs, deans, and employee councils, this will be a primary topic of conversation. And I’ve asked our Office of General Counsel to offer some open forums on the topic in the coming months for anyone who is interested in these issues and the challenges they pose for public colleges and universities. These are not simplistic problems, and knowledge is a powerful tool for navigating the times in which we live.
Even as we struggle with such weighty issues in the coming months, the business of the new day approaches. To our faculty and staff: Thanks to all of you as we open our classroom doors and halls to a new generation of students who are coming here for the best that we can offer. Hundreds of you have worked hard to make this Move-In Week work well for students and families so that they can have a wonderful first experience on our campus. Let’s give them that. And to our entire community – students, faculty, staff – let’s stand proudly together as a community of scholars committed to truth, to justice, to access and inclusion, and to the value and dignity of all people.
Dr. Tony Frank