Dear Members of the Texas State Community,
I hope that you enjoyed a Thanksgiving holiday that was filled with good fellowship and had at least some time devoted to relaxation.
I personally used much of the time to review and mull over the emails, resolutions and letters I have received during the last three weeks pertaining to the presidential election and the events that have transpired in its wake, both on and off our campuses. These communications include resolutions and letters from academic departments, an open letter to the editor in the University Star, a communication from the Coalition of Black Faculty and Staff, and hundreds of emails from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the university.
Over the long holiday, I carefully reread and thought deeply about the ideas and concepts that were included in these communications. I then reread them again, this time seeking to understand what unexpressed ideas and thoughts may have existed and served as a foundation for those that were directly expressed. As I did this, I considered the honest and, at times, unapologetic tone of these communications, the authors’ passion, and sincerity of the expression. I began looking between the letters of the words, under and above the sentences, and in and around the paragraphs … to really hear and understand what the authors were saying.
This is what I heard. Although many members of our campus community are pleased with the outcome of the election, many more of the ones who wrote to me are feeling alarmed, anxious, marginalized, unwelcome, disrespected, targeted, and hurt due to divisive rhetoric and unkind acts that have occurred across our country, in our cities and towns, and at our university. Many are concerned about their physical safety and their emotional wellbeing both on our campuses and off our campuses. Many members of our community worry that racism has become acceptable and, therefore, they are no longer considered to be valued members of our Texas State community. They worry that, all of a sudden, after the recent election, the friends that they thought they had on campus -- including me -- can no longer be trusted. They wonder if we will maintain our commitment to them and to the University mission and values that specifically and intentionally state our institutional pledge to be an open, diverse, accepting academic community that treasures and values each member of our university and embraces our diversity – because that is who we are at Texas State.
In rereading all these materials at one time, what struck me forcibly was the range of conflicting emotions that were battling for my attention. My heart felt deeply sad to read and hear that members of our campus community not only question their safety but also question whether I am concerned about their safety. That, my friends, is deeply disturbing to me as I consider myself to be the guardian of our campus community and the mission and values that we hold dear. At the same time, I felt so proud that the authors of these pieces would trust me enough to directly share their perception of the feelings held by some members of our community. These pieces offer insights into what the authors’ consider the paramount role and responsibility of a University President. Thank you for trusting me with your voices.
First, let me reassure all members of the Texas State community of my respect for and concern about the safety and wellbeing of each of you. I also want to reassure you that I remain committed to the core mission and values of this University and to our policies that prohibit discrimination, unequal treatment, and acts of violence. Additionally, I want to reassure all that we have taken, and will continue to take steps that allow us to maintain an academically vital, safe, and sacred space that promotes civility, dialogue, discussion, debate, and the free and unfettered exchange of ideas, opinions, thoughts, and theories. We will not tolerate vile acts of aggression such as the vigilante posters that appeared the day after the election. As examples of the proactive steps that we continue to take in our on-going efforts to both preserve the vitality of our academic environment and protect every member of our campus community, we are:
· Increasing the presence on campus of the University police by adding bike and walking patrols, encouraging students to add the free Bobcat Guardian mobile safety app to mobile devices so they have a direct connection to the University Police Department (UPD) in times of need, reminding students to use the Bobcat Bobbies service to ensure safe movement on campus, and asking students to immediately contact UPD to report any threat, intimidation, act of violence, or unusual activity that they have witnessed or have experienced;
· Encouraging faculty, staff, and students to talk to one another and share any concerns they have about their wellbeing or the wellbeing of others on campus with their closest supervisor and asking those supervisors to immediately report those concerns to the appropriate vice president; and
· Providing public forums for discussion of issues on the national, state, local, and campus levels that are or may impact members of our campus community. The public forums provide safe environments for civil discourse between all members of the campus community and encourage the communication of diverse perspectives on controversial issues to allow us to hear one another, learn from one another, and arrive at a more informed and better understanding of the viewpoints held by each other. These public forums include:
o Sponsoring through Student Government “Bobcats United,” which is a series of town hall meetings that encourage open discussion of various issues and controversial topics.
o Sponsoring through The College of Liberal Arts a dialogue series that is open to all members of the campus community titled: “In the Aftermath of the 2016 Elections: Dialogues on Democracy and Conflict.” These dialogues are held in the Philosophy Dialogue Room, Comal 116, from 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m. The first was on November 21 and the topic was Talking Politics With Our Families. Today’s topic was What is Patriotism? Protest and American Democracy. Three more will be held this semester: November 30 (Topic: Politics and Roommates); December 5 (Topic: Freedom of Expression, Safe Spaces, and Brave Spaces); December 7 (Topic: What Does It Mean to be “An American.”). More dialogues are being scheduled for the spring 2017 semester.
In this context of the safety of our campuses, I must point out that during the three weeks since the election, UPD has not received any reports of an assault or a direct threat of an assault upon a Texas State student, faculty, or staff member. So let me reiterate: all threats or assaults should be reported immediately to UPD.
I would now like to turn to my vision of the duties and responsibilities of a University President. I do this so that all members of our campus community can better understand why, in my role as a university leader, I must always act in the best interest of the university. Although other university presidents may have a different vision of their role as the leader of an institution of higher education, I believe that in my role as your University President, I have an absolute duty to publically speak out as an advocate on issues that directly impact the university and our academic mission. However, I also have a corollary duty not to speak out on controversial or societal issues that are beyond higher education, absent extraordinary circumstances. This corollary duty not to speak allows me to be an impartial guardian of the sacred academic environment that we have on our campuses now that allows us -- every member of our community -- to engage in vibrant, unfettered discourse, discussion, debate, examination, and testing of ideas, thoughts, positions, theories, and concepts known and unknown. This corollary duty, often referenced as institutional neutrality, as a general rule, does not allow a university leader to publicly take a position on any issue that is not central to its educational mission because the risks to the academic enterprise, including the potential for intimidation of members within our campus community who do not hold the same view, are too great. Such intimidation would have the effect of thwarting one of the most basic values held in higher education, which is the preservation of academic freedom, inquiry, and scrutiny of ideas. Having said that, it must also be acknowledged that we are living in a divided society where many disagree with one another on the correct path for our nation to follow on several issues. As guardian of this sacred academic environment, I pledge to act in the best interest of Texas State University, to speak out on issues affecting the academic enterprise, and to continue to follow the principle of institutional neutrality on issues beyond higher education, until and unless some extraordinary situation arises that would change the risk/benefit analysis described above.
In closing, please know that I hear most certainly the voices summarized in the letters and petitions I have received. I hear the voices of those in our community who do not feel safe and those who do and I deeply respect the varying opinions contained in them. In my role as the leader of Texas State University, I remain staunchly committed to our core values that include diversity, equality, and inclusion. I have spoken plainly and forcefully on behalf of these values because they are fundamental to who we are. I also remain committed to be the guardian of this sacred academic enterprise that promotes inquiry, discovery, analysis, and freedom of expression -- a freedom that is both indivisible and enhanced, not diminished, by vigorous debate. Centuries ago John Milton described the environment in which this kind of debate is most likely to occur: “Let her [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
I believe that when Bobcats are united in our commitment to respectfully and inclusively engage with one another, to talk, to understand, and to find bridges across ideological differences, that is when we are at our best.
As I finalized this letter, I have become aware of a growing national movement to support the needs of immigrant students and a petition that is circulating at our University. I am reviewing these initiatives and determining what the University’s role should be.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter and for caring deeply about our great university.
Denise M. Trauth