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Pres Scholz on Gaza protests, boycotts, divestment, free speech, disruptions

Dear University of Oregon community,
We are living through an extraordinary moment in which people at universities across the nation—including on our own campus—are expressing their passionate views about the ongoing conflict and devastating loss of human life in the Middle East and particularly in Gaza.
The destruction and suffering we have witnessed in Gaza and Israel over the last seven months—the killing of innocent Israeli and Palestinian people with tens of thousands of lives lost including roughly over 34,000 in Gaza alone—are profoundly disturbing. Many in our community are deeply and personally affected. As has happened here and around the world, the ongoing conflict has sparked discussion, protests, and calls for action.

Universities are communities 

We often talk about “the university,” but we are first and foremost a community. And the heart of our community is our people—our joys, grief, distress, celebrations, frustrations, and hope—hope for themselves and for a better world. 
I sat with a group of students last week and had the opportunity to hear firsthand some of these hopes and concerns. I appreciated hearing their views, even when I had no immediate answers on deeply difficult issues. Conversations with students, or the University Senate, or other opportunities to meet, listen, and understand are important to building a healthy community. 

Centering on the value of people 

Some students, staff, faculty, and other community members are making calls or issuing demands for various forms of action. I know these are prompted by a deep concern and care for human life. While viewpoints on the conflict are many, it is helpful to remind ourselves that all members of our community—administration, faculty, staff, students, and those who support us—embrace the value and dignity of humanity. I truly believe this, but sometimes we lose sight of it in the passion of this moment.
Let me say this unequivocally, again: anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, anti-Palestinian hatred, and other forms of hate and intimidation are an anathema to our shared values. Our opportunity to live our values starts at home, here at the UO, when we commit to creating common space and a culture of respect and compassion. 

Safety and university life

This commitment entails a responsibility to value all voices. The loudest voices cannot silence quieter ones—both minority and majority viewpoints must be respectfully heard.
These vital commitments are made stronger through the university’s long-standing policies for peaceful protests and demonstrations, and our community members’ adherence to them. These policies are designed to protect and uphold free speech while maintaining health and safety, limiting disruptions to education while preserving the daily activities required for learning, teaching, living, and working at the university.
But let me be clear: conduct and behavior that disrupt the essential operations of the university—or impede our ability to provide an environment conducive to learning—have no place here. Criminal or illegal activity likewise will not be tolerated. 

Response to current events

I want to go one step further and share my thoughts on how our mission informs our response to current events. As I mentioned already, there are calls—as there have been elsewhere—for the UO to take a political stand against Israel through statements and sanctions, or to implement boycotts or to divest. Let me take these one at time.
Academic boycotts are antithetical to the free exchange of ideas and creation of scholarship, which is the core purpose of the university. Boycotts could allow any single viewpoint to unilaterally limit scholarly collaboration and understanding across countries; limit research cooperation and industry partnerships; limit the ability of students to pursue study—either here or abroad—curtailing the development of our students as free, informed global citizens. These are fundamental responsibilities of the university, and I hope we all will remain firm in upholding them.
The ability to sanction sovereign nations, states, or governments does not lie with universities, but with our country’s government. We have many mechanisms by which citizens in this country can register their sentiment on any issue with those who represent them in Washington, DC.
Divestment, like academic boycotts, run counter to our obligations to our students, our state, and to some degree, our country.
The responsibility of stewarding our investments lies with the UO Foundation, who we charge with meeting the needs of the university. The foundation appropriately focuses on long-term investment decisions that ensure the university remains on strong financial footing. That is done through rigorous management of our investments, evaluating opportunities through an environmental, social, and governance framework, a framework that is attentive to environmental, social, and governance considerations. This approach ensures our instruments are ethical, legal, and prudent. The Foundation’s work helps finance scholarships and student aid, student housing, teaching facilities, research labs, and the faculty who instruct and support students’ pursuit of their degrees. I support this vital work and will not ask the UO Foundation to deviate from their responsibilities and approach.

Wrestling with ideas

The freedom to express ideas, the freedom to debate and disagree, the freedom to wrestle with complex issues—these are the rare gifts a university environment offers.
Our mission is to advance human understanding, create and disseminate new knowledge, and prepare students for successful lives. To that end, it is profoundly important that we remain an environment founded on the principle that we can express ideas even when it makes us uncomfortable, that we can engage in debate, and that we will allow for dissenting voices even when such voices express ideas we, personally, may find abhorrent. Both the US and our Oregon constitutions, and our policies on speech at the university, uphold the right to express viewpoints, including views held by the majority and those that may deviate significantly from that majority.
This is hard, sometimes deeply uncomfortable, work. We sometimes hear about members of our community not feeling safe when the provocation is words or ideas that they or we feel uncomfortable with. But the correct path is not to censor those ideas or speech, but rather to engage, interrogate, and reveal ideas to determine if they are misguided, dangerous, and not worthy of further dissemination
In the end, our ability to explore and confront difficult topics is the most powerful tool we have to help bring about social good. Our ability to bring insights from our past to inform our future, to explore diverse perspectives, to collaborate and question, and to create scholarship and creative work that address shared societal problems—these are our greatest avenues to affect change and improve the world.
The principles of free speech and peaceful dissent and the principles of respectful listening, physical safety, and care for one another go hand in hand. I am grateful to the thousands of students, staff, and faculty who are exercising these principles on our campus today. 
Let us continue to do so.
Sincerely,
John Karl Scholz
President
For more information and resources about free speech and safety at the University of Oregon, visit freespeech.uoregon.edu.

2 Comments

  1. thedude 05/01/2024

    I agree with everything in this letter. Feeling uncomfortable is different than being unsafe but those two get confused a lot on college campuses.

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    • UO Matters Post author | 05/02/2024

      Uncomfortable is teaching a class in Gerlinger on a hot day. Unsafe is writing a paper in your office in PLC while waiting for the Cascadia Fault to slip.

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