It has been my practice at the end of each semester to write to you on the current state of the university. This message is different.
Our university is sound, and there are both challenges and successes that merit attention. They will get it in due course. At this writing, however, forces are at work in our larger society, higher education, and much closer to home that deserve special attention.
Events in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere—and reactions to them nationally—serve as the latest stark reminders that members of our society feel at risk and that they are targets of fear and disrespect based solely on their skin color. Members of our own community have expressed the full range of emotions precipitated by the national conversation and shaped by their own experiences. Some express real discouragement and have little faith in the systems designed to protect the public’s safety and deliver justice. Some are disappointed that many in the community don’t recognize the weight of these issues, while others are motivated by these events to demand meaningful change.
Parallel events and disclosures on college campuses throughout the nation, including our own, have exposed a plague of sexual assault, often enabled by cultural norms that embolden predators, inhibit bystanders, and silence survivors. The systems for criminal justice and campus judicial proceedings on many campuses have too often failed the survivors. Only recently are institutions starting to address adequately the threat in places that, above all else, should value and protect the integrity and safety of students.
I write to the American University community now because these events have brought us to a tipping point. To the extent that our campus is a reflection of the nation, we must challenge ourselves to recognize and confront these issues and set the highest standards possible for the quality of our thinking and our conduct.
We must hold up the university as a home for safe and respectful exchanges about the full range of risks that people face and how that makes us feel. Only through these means can we aspire to contribute to meaningful change. We should do so in a manner that does not infringe on the primary purpose for which we are all here.
My hope is that we will renew our commitment to build a community where all feel welcome, included, and empowered to participate. This must be linked to actions and evidence that we are living up to these values.
We have made statements about the importance of diversity and inclusion in all aspects of life on this campus, and we have had notable accomplishments; but we still have a considerable way to go. We do not shy away from difficult conversations and have demonstrated an ability to coalesce around actions that advance our core values.
The door must always remain open for ideas that hold the promise of building a stronger, more inclusive institution.
As we move to the close of the semester and winter break, I ask that we take time to consider these issues and return with a renewed commitment to inclusion, safety, free expression, and reasoned debate. If opportunities in classes, activities, and work environments offer the chance to exchange ideas, I heartily encourage it.
This is a moment in history that should not go unexamined.
AU's strategic plan, Leadership for a Changing World, outlines goals and objectives for the next decade at American University. Visit american.edu/strategicplan for more information. (myAU.american.edu login required for some documents)