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December 8, 2016

Senate Matters

Pitt in a changed time

Last year Senate Council began to consider the meanings of diversity, inclusion and academic freedom in a context where, as Chancellor Gallagher noted, “Dramatic turmoil at other campuses in the U.S. has occurred and has thrown a bright light on racial tolerance, free speech and what is happening at American universities.”

We formed a committee of student, staff, faculty and administration representatives that continues to explore those issues and now is focused on creating a statement of institutional core values for Pitt that we can draw upon as we face the challenges ahead. Our aim has been to accomplish that in a thoughtful and deliberate way, without being forced to do so by a heated public controversy.

However, given what occurred during the recent presidential campaign, it’s unlikely that any public university will escape escalating tension, turmoil and turbulence. Globally, wars continue, people by the millions are displaced, and the physical future of our planet is endangered. Nationally, specific groups (based on ethnicity, religion, gender or other identities) are targeted for vilification and violence, while economic inequality accelerates. Our already less than robust social safety net is under increasing attack, and public education from kindergartens to the major research universities are targets for defunding, privatization and perhaps much worse.

Social movements — some old, some new — are strengthening, emerging and becoming more active in their push for change. Many feel heartened by this, but many of these movements are directly at odds — progressive versus reactionary — producing struggles for change that are really struggles against each other, with violent interaction becoming more likely to intensify.

Our University cannot disconnect or gain immunity from these challenging and dangerous social conditions. Rather, it is a time for the Pitt community, as individuals and as an institution, to become a positive force and place not only for discussion and debate, but also for whatever mediation and conciliation may be possible. We must be certain of our mission, and we should quickly adopt and affirm a set of core values that will help guide our actions when we are inevitably faced with unfortunate incidents, uncomfortable situations and tough “rock and a hard place” choices.

We have, especially in this academic year, proudly and publicly pledged to embrace and promote diversity, and are seriously trying to deal with the more difficult challenge of implementing inclusion. While these may be among our core values, they also are at the root of the social confrontations threatening us all. My hope is that we will be able to agree that the protection of speech and the right to protest are fundamental to who we are and what we do. All of us — students, staff, faculty and administrators — must find our appropriate roles and responsibilities.

The primary function of any public university is the production and dissemination of knowledge. This is where we teach, do research and serve our publics. This should be the place where open and principled debates about competing ideas are encouraged and modeled. If Pitt ceases to be such a place, out of fear of political punishment or further reductions in federal and state funding, our country’s social fabric will be further torn. If enough universities abdicate their responsibilities, the damage may become irreparable.
It is probably easier for most of us to embrace and defend free speech than to do the same for actions. Although I actively challenge them, I can still defend the right of white supremacists and fascists to openly espouse their hateful and dangerous ideas. I can tolerate them, while not respecting them at all and saying so clearly and loudly. When those ideas become actions however, a different line has been crossed, and I am more than willing to prohibit, counter and even punish them, and there are usually an abundance of existing laws and rules to draw upon to do that.

Actively protesting existing laws, rules and dominant norms really puts us to the test, however. We know that important social and political changes have often occurred at least in large measure from collective protest actions, sometimes intentionally illegal ones. Sometimes this turns out poorly, but some of our most important advances also have come from this kind of boundary line shifting. This is risky business, but a risk worth taking and protecting.

Pitt has seen plenty of protests in recent times. When they are directed outward — opposing war, or crime and violence in our communities — we have little problem permitting or enabling them. More problematic is when the protests of competing causes are at issue — say over abortion or the Israel/Palestine divide. Here again Pitt typically has been able to allow orderly action to unfold without choosing sides. Most challenging of all, however, is when the protests are directed against the University and its existing policies itself — whether we should declare Pitt a sanctuary campus, divest from fossil fuel corporations, implement a $15 hourly minimum wage, or lower tuition because student debt is too high. It is likely that all of these kinds of protests will be increasing, and soon.

If we have affirmed that a core institutional value of the University is defending the right of protest along with free speech, we stand a better chance of making our way through difficult situations and times in a more honorable and successful way. If we draw on that as protesters, counter-protesters, bystanders or the powers-that-be defending their order, a critical mass of each group may emerge that will keep us civil, peaceful and better off in the long run.

This is no easy task, but I’m convinced it is an essential one.

Frank Wilson is the University Senate president and teaches sociology at the Greensburg campus.

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