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Memorandum November 11, 2016

To:
American University Community
From:
Neil Kerwin, President
Subject:
Setting the Standard for Discourse and Understanding

As protests formed in cities and campuses across the United States, students convened on Wednesday on the steps of the Mary Graydon Center in an impromptu gathering to express a range of reactions to the culmination of a very divisive presidential election. Public Safety officers and campus administrators were present to ensure that participants were safe and that all rights were preserved. That wasn't easy, but I commend their professionalism and dedication. Despite their best efforts the situation became highly contentious. Inflammatory language and actions were evident. I am disappointed that an opportunity to express deeply felt concerns about the results and implications of the election became an incident that has further divided members of our community and reflected poorly on our university.

Universities have always been places that respect a range of ideas, unfettered discussion, and respectful debate. American University upholds institutional values of free expression and mutual respect for people representing diverse points of view. If we want others to understand and listen to our perspective, we must allow others to safely express theirs. We can expect expressions of frustration and fear, pride and patriotism, among others. We should strive to explore their roots and examine them in depth. Let me state-again-that our commitment to diversity and inclusion is unshakable. Those who believe they are not afforded the respect and understanding they deserve must be able to express their views and we must respond if we are to be the institution we aspire to be. Only a climate for open discussion and healthy debate for all viewpoints will advance that goal.

To that end, I am compelled to comment on one particularly troubling aspect of Wednesday's event. The university in no way condones, promotes, or supports the burning of the American flag. Yes, the Supreme Court made it quite clear that this specific act is protected expression under the First Amendment. But, it is also an act of profound disrespect that left many members of our community outraged, deeply offended, and disappointed. It generated a great amount of negative reaction from a number of quarters, including our alumni and parents. The nature of the act and reactions to it can put members of the community at risk of injury. In our maintenance of an environment of free and open expression, we-as a private institution-must be clear that the safety of our community is of paramount importance.

I also know that as a result of the election, many in our community are fearful because of their religious beliefs, skin color, national origin, or sexual identity and expression. The university has public safety, health care professionals, and ministerial support to assist anyone who feels threatened.

The question for our community now is, what role will American University play in setting a higher standard? Our name carries special responsibility not only to respect the rights enshrined in our Constitution, but to use our freedoms wisely and judiciously to create an environment where all can be heard, understood, and free to safely contribute to healthy debate and discussion.

The weeks and months ahead will no doubt be challenging. The lasting effects of the divisive national election, and upcoming transition present multiple opportunities for interaction and exchange, and I hope, to learn from past experiences and conduct ourselves on the highest possible level. A good start was the excellent discussion yesterday, in which six members of our faculty offered their perspective and expertise on the election to an engaged, standing room only crowd of faculty, staff, and students. Clearly that discussion was needed and welcome.

Now I ask every member of our community to help maintain that standard of civil discourse more broadly at our university.

2017-2018 President's Council on Diversity and Inclusion

President's Council on Diversity & Inclusion (PCDI)

The President's Council on Diversity and Inclusion was convened in 2016 and is charged with monitoring and reporting progress on elements of the Diversity and Inclusion Plan, which was drafted in February 2016 and reaffirmed in April 2016.

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