October 10, 2019
Dear University of Oregon colleagues,
A few weeks ago, UO’s new Provost Patrick Phillips and I took a walk around campus and talked about some of the things we are both looking forward to at the start of a new academic year. I would like to try something new—a hybrid edition of Open Mike featuring both video and text. I hope you will indulge me and take a few minutes to watch our discussion.
As we walked across campus, one topic we kept coming back to was our shared goal of helping to build a campus culture at UO that is grounded in both academic freedom and respectful dialogue. Some believe those two ideals are in conflict, but I do not see it that way. For example, Patrick and I do not always agree—and that is a good thing—because we make better decisions for the institution when we are challenging each other’s assumptions, playing devil’s advocate, and pushing the other to consider flaws in logic or to confront personal biases. The thing I most appreciate, though, is that we have the highest level of respect for each other and know that the conversation, even if heated, is rooted in wanting the best for the UO’s future, respecting our mission, and valuing students, faculty, and staff.
Our conversation got me thinking about the principles that should ultimately bind an academic institution and community of scholars. I firmly believe the UO is a community united by a desire to serve our current students and future generations. We strive for truth and understanding, and it is only through cooperation and teamwork that we can succeed, whether in the laboratory or the classroom. It is this spirit of cooperation and the sense of a higher calling to work toward the betterment of society through our mission of research, education, and service that makes us different, that generates the special spirit that is needed for us to succeed at the highest level. Our actions should model the behavior we hope will rub off on our students.
Quite honestly, I am not sure that we at the UO have always lived up to that ideal. Our campus culture can sometimes show cracks from the voices of cynicism and discord. But I recognize that I cannot expect those who seek a culture that values both academic freedom and respect to raise their voices if I do not set the right example from Johnson Hall. For that reason, I am establishing some principles that I will personally adhere to and that I will insist all members of my administration follow in a sincere effort to maintain and improve our campus culture. I invite colleagues across campus to do the same. Here are the principles I commit myself and the other administrators to:
- Honesty. I, and the people who report to me, will never knowingly lie or mislead members of our community. Trust is an essential element of any well-functioning community and honesty is the foundation of trust. Unfortunately, the university I joined in 2015 was suffering from a severe lack of trust for reasons we all understand. I have tried my best to engender trust over the past four years, but I have not been as successful as I would have hoped. I continue to looks for ways to redouble my efforts here. But trust is a two-way street. We must all call out the bad behavior of some members of our community whose main purpose is to spread falsehoods for the purpose of sowing doubt and cynicism or achieving strategic advantage. A healthy dose of skepticism is good, but character assassination and the spreading of lies and innuendo is not.
- Transparency. Trust can only be built through transparency. I sometimes wonder why some folks always think the administration is hiding things. I have been a faculty member at two universities and a faculty member/administrator at three others. I can say, without a doubt, that the UO is the most transparent of them all. It’s not even close. The amount of data and information that we make available is truly extraordinary. I sometimes think that the sheer volume of information on our institutional research and budget websites might hinder members of our community from finding what they are looking for. To deal with this issue, I am planning to launch a transparency website this term, an online clearinghouse where we consolidate many of the publicly available reports and data about the university into one online location. In addition, I hope to provide facts to answer some commonly held questions and clear up some persistent myths about the university. I look forward to sharing it with you in the coming weeks and, once it is live, I invite input from all of you on how we can improve it and make the tool more useful. Stay tuned.
- Respect. As I stated above, one of the defining features of a successful academic community is respect. Respect for each other’s views and for our colleagues as people. Respect does not mean that we need to agree with each other; quite to the contrary. Vigorous disagreement about ideas is the hallmark of a healthy academic community. But ad hominin attacks, aspersions about motives, insults directed at colleagues, and harassment of co-workers are all signs of a dysfunctional community. We can do better here. I am disgusted by what I sometimes read online and in the comments section of local newspapers and blogs. We are better than this. If we are not, we need to be. We are faced with enough bad behavior online and in Washington, D.C.; we do not need to bring it into our university. I pledge I will do my best to treat everyone here with respect, whether in my office, in the classroom, or just walking across campus. I hope that respect will be mutual.
- Grace. One of the defining elements of a well-functioning community is empathy, kindness, and, for want of a better word, grace. Over the past four years I have met thousands of our staff members, graduate students, faculty members, and administrators. I have talked to you and believe that the vast majority of our faculty and staff care deeply about our students and their futures. That is why you are here. You forgive them their mistakes and understand that life is about learning from our experiences—both good and bad. I wish that we could show each other that same grace. I have made and will make some mistakes as your president. So will other administrators. And so will you. But let’s not turn every mistake into a moment of attack. Let’s treat each other with some of the same grace we show our students. I promise I will try to do that as I fulfill my obligations as your president.
So, as we begin a new academic year, one that could have its share of tension and disagreement, I will employ these principles of honesty, transparency, respect, and grace. I will also try, to the best I am able, to throw in a bit of wisdom and humor from time to time.
Welcome back. I very much look forward to working closely with each of you this year.
Michael H. Schill
President and Professor of Law