Discouraging bigotry and celebrating diversity

You may have seen media reports of fliers and other communication appearing across southern Illinois and nearby areas – including on campuses – that promote white supremacy groups or call out individuals who share their views. This is happening on campuses across the country, including SIU.

A flier appearing on campus and on social media over the last several days describes an SIU student as a Nazi. This student’s expression of his views has raised a number of questions and concerns, including requests that we remove the student and revoke any scholarship that has been awarded. We absolutely understand and value this feedback.

The views of white supremacists, any other group promoting hate, and all those who seek to demean and marginalize others are abhorrent. They do not align with the university’s mission or values, and they do not represent what we stand for as a campus community.

In fact, we ask all students on campus to follow the Saluki creed: “As a Saluki, I pledge to forward these ideas and ideals: I discourage bigotry and celebrate diversity by striving to learn from differences in people’s ideas and opinions. I will embrace the ideals of freedom of civilized expression, intellectual inquiry and respect for others.”

Free speech

In spite of our strong disagreement with the views and statements advocated by these groups, their perspectives are considered to be free speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. All students share the right of free speech, even speech with which we strongly disagree. The right to free speech includes the right to hold and express views that most of us would condemn.

Further, scholarships and financial aid are awarded based on a student’s academic achievements or financial need. As a public institution, we cannot and do not ask about political or social views when admitting students or awarding any type of financial aid. Doing so could lead to perceptions of bias and illegal discrimination.

Again, SIU is not alone in facing the serious societal issues reflected in the messages espoused by hate groups. As has been said elsewhere, the best antidote for hate speech is more speech that counters the views we disagree with – a concept that relates very much to our role as an educational institution.

Carol Christ, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, put it this way: “[t]he most popular argument for free speech is not one of legal constraint – that we’re required to allow it – but of value. The public expression of many sharply divergent points of view is fundamental both to our democracy and to our mission as a university.”

Learn and participate

Our obligation to comply with and respect the law does not prevent any of us from proactively speaking out against racism and bias, and it does not prevent us from focusing on education and dialog about addressing these serious issues. Here are just a few ways you can learn more and participate in the conversation:

  • Next Thursday, Sept. 27, you are invited to attend the play The Defamation Experience, a play exploring how race, religion, class and gender intersect. It takes place from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Lesar Law Building Auditorium.
  • Staff, students and departments can participate in diversity workshops, which focus on maintaining the inclusive excellence of our campus and cover the concepts of diversity, privilege, intersectionality, inclusivity and being an ally. Visit the Office of the Associate Chancellor for Diversity training website to explore training opportunities and to learn how to request training.
  • University Housing’s Office of Residence Life provides programs for residents that span a broad spectrum of diversity-related topics. Residence Life staff host a series of town hall meetings to address more specific topics, including current events relating to issues of diversity. The first town hall meetings will be held throughout the month of October and will include opportunities for students to discuss incidents from this fall semester.
  • Explore the resources across campus, including the Student Multicultural Resource Center dedicated to helping all students think, grow and succeed.

The university has been expanding diversity-related programming in order to give everyone an opportunity to reflect upon what it means to be a Saluki. A new diversity event calendar, housed on the Office of the Associate Chancellor for Diversity website, is being developed to help you stay up-to-date on events and activities.

Staying attuned

The university is continually assessing all information we receive to ensure that our students, faculty and staff can work, live and learn in a supportive, welcoming and safe environment.

Students who are concerned about these issues and fliers should reach out to the Office of the Dean of Students, Saluki Cares or Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for assistance.

As always, any individual who is threatened or aware of threatening statements or behaviors should report them to the SIU Department of Public Safety immediately.

With your help, we can work together to fulfill our mission as a university committed to diversity and inclusive excellence.

Author: Carlo Montemagno

Carlo Montemagno is chancellor of Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Learn more about him at chancellor.siu.edu.