I know many of you have been deeply troubled by the events at the University of Virginia and in Charlottesville that took place a week ago, and are reminded that our campus goals of diversity and inclusion are not shared by everyone. Deeply troubling is that there are those, many of whom are contemporaries of our own students, who seek to use both political and physical means to undermine the inherent dignity and worth of others. Calling out white supremacism as evil, and standing on the side of love and justice over hate and bigotry is a moral obligation we share as educators.
Reflecting on the past week, it is evident that our country never had the needed process of truth and reconciliation that should have taken place through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when the University of Tennessee became desegregated. Hearing from many who have experienced discrimination based on their national origin, religion, race, sex, sexual orientation or sexual identity on our campus, I know we still have important work to do.
I am also very aware that, like statues in the public square, symbols are important. I am proud that our College of Law has the “Image of Human Rights” portfolio displayed in the Howard Baker Rotunda entryway. This portfolio, which includes an introduction by the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, was created by black and white South African printmakers, and depicts the principles of the post-apartheid South African Bill of Rights. I am also grateful for the efforts of our colleagues in the UTK Africana Studies Program, who last week issued a statement in support of the faculty and staff of the University of Virginia.
Many faculty and academic programs are engaged in research, scholarship and creative activities that address systemic racism. Last week Derek Alderman, UTK Professor of Geography, was a guest on the NPR show A1 on August 16, to offer an historical perspective on why many of the Confederate monuments were installed in prominent public spaces from the 1880s to the 1920s. http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510316/1a
As I write this message, I am also mindful of the recently enacted Campus Free Speech Protection Act (SB 0723), http://www.capitol.tn.gov/Bills/110/Amend/SA0333.pdf which states that the “free exchange of ideas is not to be suppressed because” they are “offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrong-headed.” Our educational goal of fostering thoughtful dialogue will be tested if our campus is a place for offensive, disagreeable and wrong-headed speech. It is hard to imagine how to have civil and thoughtful dialogue with someone engaged in hate speech.
Recently I addressed and visited orientation sessions for new faculty and freshmen. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion was emphasized in both of these settings, and these new members of our campus community contribute to this goal. Last night at Torch Night, Chancellor Davenport reaffirmed this commitment to diversity and inclusion. As we embark on this new academic year, I hope we will all strive for the values of civility and community, affirming a commitment to non-violence and democratic processes, as we seek to educate and provide opportunities for every student and faculty colleague.
Thank you for the work you do to make our university welcoming to everyone.