Dear UMPI Community,
One of the cornerstones of a college’s ability to provide an education to individuals and their families is to offer education within a civil and safe environment. More than anything else, UMPI has an obligation to provide such an environment to all of its students and extended community members as well as educational experiences that encourage all of us to engage in civil and productive discourse. This is critical not only to ensure a safe learning and residential environment at UMPI, but to safeguard basic tenets of democracy that reach far beyond the classroom. Colleges and universities are especially critical in this endeavor; a recent national survey by Allegheny College, for instance, showed that nearly 50 percent of all 18-29 year-olds, both within college and without, believe that an undergraduate education is the most critical and effective institution in American society to ensure civility.
Perhaps the first question to ask, then, is the most basic: what is “civil discourse”? The US Supreme Court recently defined it as “robust, honest, frank and constructive dialogue and deliberation that seeks to advance the public interest.” Civil discourse is thus our ability to have conversation about topics about which we may strongly disagree, and our ability to hear each other’s perspectives. Simply put, it is impossible to feel safe in one’s environment if basic tenets of civility are not respected. Only then can we undertake any serious exchange of views, but, most importantly, ensure we treat each other with respect and reject any form of violence, whether it be made through written or verbal language, physical acts, or emotional impact.
This is especially important today, as acts of racism and discrimination are increasing across the world, our country, within our communities, and our own campus. The Pew Research Center reported in July that one in four Black and Asian Americans reported they felt discomfort in their interactions because of their race or ethnicity; racism against Indigenous, Latinx, Muslim, and Asian peoples; anti-Semitism, white supremacy, and other forms of xenophobia against people of other nationalities is also on the rise. In addition, the violence of racism consistently intersects with other forms of discrimination—gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, ability and accessibility, to name but a few. People within each of these groups have experienced the harm of discrimination and violence. People on our campus have experienced discrimination and violence, both in terms of microaggressions and overt acts. The struggle for greater justice and more democratic institutions occurs not just in national political discussions and actions, but within daily behavior and interactions. We can only truly address injustice from a position in which each one of us feels the security of a civil and safe environment.
Higher educational institutions such as UMPI stand for the virtues of inclusiveness, diversity, and equity. We have worked to articulate these values over recent years in a number of ways. This includes the Owl Stand By You Pledge to Diversity and Inclusion, developed by students working with staff and administration, and signed by hundreds and hundreds of campus members (you can find the pledge here). It also incorporates much more work, including Diversity Dialogues, Stand Together Week initiatives, a Democracy Wall, and multiple formal Campus Conversations on such topics.
It is clear that we must renew our efforts in ensuring that every individual at UMPI understands and embraces these basic values so that each one of us can feel safe within our extended community, whether in our dormitories, our physical or virtual classroom environments, or in clubs, athletics, or other co-curricular activities. To this end I am working directly with student, faculty, and staff leadership to re-engage the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council, which is charged specifically to oversee the adoption and implementation of a campus-wide plan. This group will be empowered to review and recommend changes to all institutional policies and practices, generate new ideas and initiatives, and solicit input from all members of the UMPI community.
Each one of us deserves to walk safely through our campus, town, or anywhere else without fear. But right now, we know that too many experience fear, anger, or alienation because of the racism and prejudice that I noted above. I thank everyone in the UMPI community in advance for participating in the work that must be done to ensure that this is a safe place for us all. That starts with each of us immediately engaging in principles of civility and an ethic of care for one another. This means that we must address not only our own rights but to be aware of how our actions can create pain and discomfort in others. This means that we must take ownership of our words and actions and ensure that we treat each other with respect. And this means that we must reject any and all acts of violence, whether through words, actions, or symbols.
I encourage us all, today, to sign the Owl Stand By You Pledge—or re-sign it, if you have already done so before—and work directly and immediately to make this a better and safer UMPI for us all.