Welcome back to our campus - now even more environment-friendly with the installation of new solar cells and solar car ports (some of which is still going on!)! We know that global warming is a clear and present danger to our nation and to humanity at large, and we are doing our small share to reduce the greenhouse effect.
As you return from your summer activities you will find construction going on in many parts of the campus. That is because we are creating new social spaces in Benziger Hall and the Library and renovating our tennis courts to accommodate our new Professional Tennis Management program; we have been busy fixing chimneys and staircases all over campus, you will find new treadmills in Berman Fitness Center, new floors in the second floor rooms in Founder's Hall, added social spaces in several resident halls, and new furniture in the Cafeteria. And there are more campus updates coming about which I will be happy to report in the coming months.
I realize that all of you are returning to campus at a time of heightened tension and great anxiety for our nation. And I would like nothing more than to assure you, as your College President, that these anxieties are unfounded. It pains me to say that I cannot do so, at least not once you leave the enclosure of this college. But within the 100 acres of our beautiful campus, we will commit to encouraging and protecting free and open discourse for all members of our college community in a safe and supportive environment.
I would like to quote from my Convocation address of last year:
“If there is one thing the history of Germany has told me, if there is one value I hold dearer than anything else except for the sanctity of human life itself, it is that every person has a right to a different opinion, a different ideology, a different set of beliefs. Nobody should ever be judged by the beliefs they hold unless these beliefs deny the basic and inalienable rights of other humans. Short of that, a university or a college is a forum for public debate, discussion and dissent, where all voices must be heard. If we fail in that, we have failed in our most basic mission.”
This most basic commitment that any college or university community must make to its students, to its faculty, and to its staff, remains unchanged. We will support and if necessary protect the right of all factions on the spectrum of open and civil debate to be heard on this campus. With that said, let me remind you of one key sentence of what I said last year:
“Nobody should ever be judged by the beliefs they hold unless these beliefs deny the basic and inalienable rights of other humans.”
This line was crossed by the White Supremacists, the KKK, and the Neo-Nazis “demonstrating” in Charlottesville. At issue is not whether or not you agree with the proposition that civil rights monuments need to be removed. I may have my opinions on that as a researcher on nationalism and as a private individual, but as President of this College I will support and defend the right of those who feel differently to express their opinion.
However, you have lost my protection to speak your mind when you adopt Nazi slogans and symbols and when you shout “Jews will not replace us,” as the Neo-Nazis, KKK members and white supremacists in Charlottesville did. Those expressions, aimed at intimidating or disparaging others will not be tolerated on this campus. They are invitations to discrimination, oppression, and, ultimately, genocide.
White supremacists and Neo-Nazis hate universities because they are only too aware that we generate knowledge and that knowledge is the arch-enemy of bigotry and parochialism. They hate scientists because, in telling them that they are not the center of the universe, science questions the narcissist’s fantasy that the universe revolves around him or her.
They hate sociologists because sociologists have been tracing the changes in our nation from a society completely dominated by white heterosexual men to an exciting multicultural mix that has made room for women, for African Americans, for Hispanic Americans and for people of all stripes, beliefs, colors and genders.
They particularly hate historians because they have brought to light the documents that have shown the full scope of the American Holocaust committed against African Americans and Native Americans.
The tragic events of Charlottesville are one particularly dangerous turn in a long history of American anti-intellectualism. It is no accident that the Alt Right, the KKK, and the Neo-Nazi groups targeted a university town. It was precisely because they correctly perceive universities as the trailblazers of enlightenment.
This is not to say that students and professors are without blame: unfortunately, there is plenty of intolerance to go around. It is not a privilege of the right and it has not stopped at the gates of college campuses, as we have seen at Berkeley and some Northeast colleges this past year. It is up to university leaders to ensure that conservative voices can be heard on campus along with liberal voices. Academic discourse that is open to all perspectives founded on solid empirical research is the only way for colleges and universities to survive.
But there is a critical difference between a campus altercation and the rhetoric of exclusion and annihilation that led to the cold-blooded, racist murder of an innocent bystander we have witnessed in Charlottesville.
Yet, we have seen that many - though not all - national leaders on both sides of the political spectrum, Democrats as well as Republicans, CEOs of major national and international firms, religious leaders and thought leaders in the media, have stood up to clearly voice their condemnation of the Charlottesville events, and this unity gives me hope.
Just as the night is always darkest and coldest just before dawn, by the same token we know that this really means that dawn is coming, that there will be another Tomorrow, where we will once again pick up the legacy of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, of Ibn Rushd and Mahatma Gandhi, of Marie Curie and Rachel Carson, where we once again use arguments that are data-driven and rooted in solid scientific research. I believe that in our lifetime we will see another American Enlightenment, and making sure that this morning comes will be the noblest task this new generation of students will take on. If we can preserve our other American heritage, a heritage of setting our sights on a better, more just tomorrow instead of simply despairing because of our troubled present and racist past, if we follow the examples of Mother Grace Dammann and Sister Mary Clark (students: look them up, this is your first homework assignment!), then we at Manhattanville College can join in with the many other moderate, forward-looking forces on both sides of the political spectrum to set the table for a dinner conversation that involves all Americans, no matter what their skin color, religious or gender identity or political convictions may be. The entrance ticket to this conversation, however, is a profound and genuine respect for others.