Continuing the Conversation
June 8, 2020
To The Campus Community:
As many of you know, last week our campus was shocked by an incident of hateful and intolerant speech. Emotions are raw right now. My message last Friday should have done a better job acknowledging the sentiments of our community while addressing the very real constitutional limits placed on public university leaders in that context.
When I wrote my response to that incident, it was meant to be taken in the context of my message from June 1 that discussed the horror of George Floyd's killing. I missed the mark. Friday's message should have more directly acknowledged the pain and fear caused by the racist and hateful remarks in question. I should have placed my concern for this pain and fear at the forefront of my message while also highlighting the legal and constitutional value and implications of free speech in this situation. Such hateful messages run counter to the civil discourse standards that we have come to expect as a university that values the safety, respect and dignity of all people; we are a university that supports our students by creating an environment in which they can thrive.
My June 1 message laid out some immediate steps for our campus and the greater Slippery Rock community. Today, I write with updates about how we will proceed with this work. I have met with the co-chairs of the President's Commission on Race and Ethnic Diversity (PCRED) to map out a plan for how we will move forward to redevelop and improve anti-racist practices and policies on our campus. This summer, PCRED will work directly with our University Police to collaboratively review policies that may disproportionately discriminate against Students of Color. Additionally, PCRED will work in conjunction with our University Communication team to design a webpage that will feature educational resources for the University community. This webpage will seek to engage everyone through personal and professional development involving issues such as white privilege, systemic racism, and anti-racist positioning. It is my hope that these resources reach our entire community and that they are used to create a more inclusive SRU.
I know there are many people from our campus community who would like to see the University expel students who express hateful language. Our ability to do this is very limited. I have spoken to our University attorneys and the language in the video in question does not meet the threshold necessary to be considered threatening by a court of law. Therefore, any action taken by the University against the student would have been viewed by the courts as unconstitutional. Our sister institution, IUP, has created an extraordinary resource explaining free speech on college campuses, and I would recommend it to people who are interested in learning more.
I recognize that the boundaries of constitutional law are upsetting in this case, as it suppresses our options for accountability. While the student in question has withdrawn from the University, we must turn our focus to the actions within our control that will lead to us living out our values of safety, respect, and dignity for all students.
So what can we do as a community when this abhorrent behavior happens in the future? We can civilly challenge disturbing speech and actions in a thoughtful manner. This means longer discussions that push our understanding, that thoughtfully ask members of our community to explore their current beliefs, and change or refine them based on new information and new perspectives. This is not the sort of dialogue that can meaningfully take place on Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. The limited nature of these media reduces complex ideas to inflammatory sound bites that push people further into their own echo chambers.
Before the pandemic, our University was building momentum in adding voices to its dialogue. Just last year we hosted thought-provoking lectures and conversations with Yusef Salaam, Anna Navarro and Donna Brazile, and Soledad O'Brien. These were extraordinarily long-form and civil discussions that set an example for our whole community, particularly about how to navigate conversations with people from polarizing viewpoints. While we face obstacles presented by COVID-19, we must work to continue to foster the open dialogue that these speakers inspire.
I look forward to a continued dialogue with the community in the days and weeks to come.
William J. Behre, Ph.D.