Reflecting on Martin Luther King, Junior's dream

January 15, 2018

President Michael H. Schill delivered the following remarks during the annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Skanner Foundation Scholarship Breakfast in Portland, Oregon.

Good morning. I am Michael Schill, President of the University of Oregon. The UO is proud to support the Skanner Foundation and is thrilled to celebrate the success of the three Skanner Foundation Scholarship recipients who are or will be attending the UO: Hiermon Medhanie, Makayla Agnew, and Melissa Duran. I had the pleasure of meeting these talented young women this morning. They have aspirations to use their degrees to pursue advertising, business and law and they hold great promise to be leaders in our community. I thank all of you for your support of these students attending the University of Oregon, and for supporting higher education.

Last year on Martin Luther King Day, I participated in a march in Eugene so the last time I was here was two years ago—in 2016. To be honest, it feels like an eternity has passed. Since my comments two years ago, the Black Lives Matter movement continued to gain steam; Donald Trump won an election punctuated by racial tension; and white supremacy reared its ugly head nationwide and close to home. 

In my position as president of the flagship university of this state, I am haunted as many of you are by the spectre of Charlottesville—hundreds of men and women marching through the University of Virginia with tiki torches with signs terrorizing students with messages like: “White lives matter” and “You will not replace us”. 

Then a protest, counter-protest and deadly violence leaving one person dead. While those of you who are here today never deluded yourself about the demise of racism in the United States, Charlottesville is a wake-up call to everyone else that we have much to do not only to make progress in achieving the dreams and aspirations of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, but also just protecting the progress we have already made as a nation. 

I ask myself, what should I be doing as an American and as a president of a major university to promote racial justice in this environment? 

As many of you are aware some of our students want me to ban or limit speech on campus by people who advocate racial intolerance. Under the law, I cannot do that. But I don’t want to hide behind the law in justifying my action particularly on this day when we celebrate and remember Dr. King. 

It was the Constitution, including the first and fourteenth amendments, that protected his right to speak words that so many people of the time found distasteful and indeed repugnant. Where would we be if the racist politicians of the south had been able to successfully silence the leaders of the Civil Rights movement? 

So, how does a commitment to free speech coexist with the moral imperative that I support our students of color in the face of rising racial bigotry and intolerance? First and foremost, I can use my speech and the bully pulpit afforded to me to condemn in the strongest terms the messages of white supremacy. There is simply no room in Eugene, Oregon, or this nation for racial bigotry and intolerance. These views are the embodiment of ignorance which is the sworn enemy of higher education. 

I can go beyond mere words and work with our student groups, our community partners, and our faculty and staff to promote the safety and security of our students. I have instructed the University of Oregon Police Department to do everything within its power to fight hate crimes within its jurisdiction and to develop strong relationships of trust with our students, faculty, and staff of color. We have also instructed our staff to remove signs of hate from all places where we can do that consistent with the law.

I can also promote education and knowledge. We at the University of Oregon through our scholarship and our teaching can teach our students about the struggles of people of color in the United States, about the history of racism in our nation, and about how the problems of the white working class today cannot be laid at the doorsteps of black and brown people. 

A third way to promote this understanding is to bring students together. Diversity serves many purposes in our nation; among the most important at a school like the UO is the opportunity for students from Eastern Oregon who may never have had a relationship with a black person to meet students from Portland and develop friendships and greater understanding of their differences and shared humanity.

As president I can also help our black and brown students feel supported and included in our university. Many of you know about the great work of the Black Student Task Force; indeed former Skanner scholarship recipients were among the leaders of this effort. We have done much over the past two years.

  • We have removed the name of a building named after a leader of the Lane County Ku Klux Klan and replaced it with the name of our illustrious alumnus D’norval Unthank Junior;
  • We have increased our efforts to recruit black students in Portland and elsewhere to come to the UO;
  • We have inaugurated a black speaker series including a standing room only talk last year by Ta-Nehesi Coates;
  • We have doubled the number of black tenure-track faculty in two years;
  • We have begun work to create a black studies program and reform our multicultural course requirement; and
  • We have raised $1.6 million to build a black cultural center dedicated to student success.

These are some of the things I can do as president of the University of Oregon. I want each of you to know that I and the University of Oregon are deeply committed to the ideals of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King. We will match our words with actions. 

We cannot teach without enlightenment. We cannot discover without open hearts and minds. We cannot make the world a better place if we do not regard and protect the needs of every member of our community.

We are committed to working with our students and all of you to continue the quest toward the dream we are celebrating today. Thank you.