December 20, 2023
University of Oregon community,
The end of a calendar year is a natural time to reflect. It is particularly so for me, having started as president at the University of Oregon roughly six months ago. As I said in a recent holiday letter, Melissa and I have quickly fallen in love with the University of Oregon. The opportunities in front of us are breathtaking and I can't wait to see what happens next.
While all the above is true, the fall term has also reminded us that no community—even one located in the majesty of the Pacific Northwest—is insulated from events around the world. Every day, we observe and feel the effects of wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, a climate crisis, global poverty, wealth inequality, and other currents that threaten the foundations of civil society at home and abroad.
The ongoing events in the Middle East are particularly horrific and have deeply affected many of us, both here at home and around the world. These include the barbaric attack on Israel by Hamas on October 7 and the military action of Israel’s government in Gaza that has left more than 18,000 Palestinians dead and more than 1.8 million displaced. In both instances, innocent civilians have suffered. The devastating events in Israel and Gaza have also sparked an alarming increase in antisemitism and Islamophobia across the world and in the United States, including, as we’ve seen, on college campuses.
Let me say this unequivocally: antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, and other forms of hate and intimidation run counter to our shared values. As a public institution, the University of Oregon does have strict limits on what we can do to prevent or punish speech, no matter how objectionable. In fact, our country’s first amendment guarantees protection for such speech, even speech that many of us find deeply offensive. However, while general comments, even if hateful, are protected by our Constitution, harassment or threats of harm to individuals—based on political views, religion, or beliefs—violate our values and will be pursued aggressively and to the full extent of the law and all applicable university policies.
The freedom to express oneself and one’s ideas, the freedom to debate and engage, the freedom to wrestle with complex issues—these are the rare gifts a university environment offers. But those gifts are precious. As a community of trust, we jointly create and are responsible for upholding this environment. This requires that we commit to creating common space, a culture of respect and compassion, and a space of belonging and open inquiry that can be a source of strength in challenging times.
Colleges and universities are unique institutions in society, dedicated to transmitting and creating knowledge and enhancing understanding of what it means to be human. Campuses are among very few remaining environments that can foster a “fearless sifting and winnowing” in search of truth; where bad or even dangerous ideas are placed in daylight and vigorously scrutinized, debated, and laid to rest and good ideas are celebrated.
As we look ahead with hope for a year filled with greater peace in the world, I ask that each of us reaffirm our commitment to decency, honesty, and empathy, even when we disagree and especially when we are grappling with events that are deeply upsetting. In so doing we will help preserve and strengthen this university we hold dear; not just for ourselves, but for the greater good, and for those who come after us.
I wish you, and all those close to you, a peaceful, prosperous, and joyful 2024. May it be a year that lightens the suffering felt by so many.