Welcome Back Message

Community as Mosaic

January 17, 1995

As we begin the spring semester, I want to share some thoughts I have had regarding several recent issues on campus.

In just the past six months, three unrelated incidents--a research project’s funding source, a published article, and an art exhibit--have understandably disturbed and offended members of various groups. Specifically, many were affronted by research funding received by a faculty member from an outside foundation accused of supporting neo-Nazi and racist agendas, by a student’s article on Haiti published by a campus publication, and by the retrospective exhibit of Andres Serrano’s photographs at the Institute of Contemporary Art, especially the notorious "Piss Christ."

Not surprisingly, the common cry in response to each of these incidents has been: "Why doesn’t the University stop this!"

That is a heartfelt demand and it deserves a clear response.

We "permit" these events because, first, in truth, we can never wholly prevent them--and in each of these recent cases, those responsible acted legally, were clearly identified, and did not hide behind the illicit screens of anonymity or vandalism. Second, we permit them because tolerating the intolerable idea is the price of the freedom of expression without which we cannot survive as an academic institution. But third, and most important, we permit them because doing so is the only way to change things. Hearing the hateful is the only way to identify and educate the hater. Seeing the offensive is a necessary step to understanding and rejecting the perspective from which it comes. Seriously considering even the most distasteful idea is the absolute precondition to arguing effectively against it.

Universities are places in our society where freedom of expression serves the search for truth and justice. By mission and by tradition, universities are open forums in which competing beliefs, philosophies, and values contend. Some will appear ill-informed, disrespectful, vengeful; in exposing and challenging them, their flaws become self-evident. That is why we do not close off debate by official pronouncement. That is why we must use such incidents to promote debate, to spotlight the hater, and to expose the hateful to the light of day.

These are issues that have a long history of debate and discussion on the Penn campus, dating back at least to the 1960s. Last year, anticipating later recommendations of the Commission on Strengthening the Community, Interim President Claire Fagin acted to set Penn on a new course in handling such situations, one in which the content of speech and expression--that is, ideas--is fundamentally not a basis for discipline, as set forth in our new Code of Student Conduct. Only conduct that violates law or interferes with the educational mission of the University merits punishment. These standards are embodied in the new Code of Student Conduct, adopted last June, in the University’s Non—Discrimination Policy, and in the Guidelines on Open Expression, which have served the Penn community well for many years.

In recent months, I have been especially pleased to see the responsible way in which those offended by the Serrano exhibit voiced their protest in outspoken, but reasoned and appropriate arguments, and then worked constructively with the Institute of Contemporary Art to create a forum for the public discussion of their concerns. Those who have been outraged reading the article published in The Red and Blue have been encouraged to do likewise. We as a community are learning to use public discussion and debate to educate one another and to assert our views.

It is my hope that, in the future, those who know they may offend--while free to exercise their right of open expression--will, as a matter of simple courtesy, open a dialogue ahead of time with groups or individuals they know will be affected by their exercise of that right. It is vital that we reach out to each other in this way, because we can learn to use the freedom of ideas and expression to educate rather than to wound. The University administration’s job is to support such dialogue and debate, not to cut it off; to create an environment in which we can educate each other, not one in which doctrine or orthodoxy are legislated from on high.

Will we provide "moral leadership" to the Penn community? Absolutely. But moral leadership requires suasion not censorship, conscience not coercion. Most of all, it requires insisting that we--all of us--talk about what troubles us. We must all use such occasions to fulfill the University’s educational mission for each other. Part of that mission is to educate for leadership, and we must each take responsibility to respond to our own moral compass in ways that better the life of our community.

Words are the life-blood of our university. For all their limitations, even if they sometimes drive us apart, words are what bind us together in the academy. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the power of words. He believed that we must use them to talk about the difficult and painful issues that divide us, about race and about religion, about politics and about power, about gender and about identity. But I urge you to choose carefully the words you use. The words of hatred and bigotry, insult and ignorance, destroy dialogue and community and must be answered. I hope the day will come when no one in our community will use such words or inflict pain on others with intent. But until then, when we are faced with words of offense and awfulness, we must draw those who use them into the dialogue of ideas. That is the essential precondition of the dynamics of change. That is why we must censure speech, but never censor speakers.

In the last two years, this community has found that we cannot, with policies and procedures, legislate the unlegislatable. But, as a community, we must demand adherence to the norms of rational argument and simple civility which are so important to furthering the dialogue of ideas. We must learn what Dr. King called "obedience to the unenforceable," learning to show the care and compassion for each other that no law or regulation can enforce.

If we can learn this lesson and put it into practice, then we can create together a model community in which individual and group differences form a mosaic that shows the beauty of our differences, not a melting pot that tries to mask them in a homogenous mix. We are a community of different identifies, and we must create a context in which a true diversity of views and opinions, persons and groups, politics and perspectives, is nurtured, valued and shared. We must openly celebrate our differentness as well as our similarities, and engage one another across all the boundaries of race, ethnicity, nationality, age, religion, gender and sexual orientation, politics and expression. But let us raise the level of the discourse, dispense with the intention to hurt, and each take more responsibility for all the members of our community.

In that spirit, I welcome you back from winter vacation to the exciting challenges that lie ahead.

-- Judith Rodin, President

Back to Almanac Archives

The source of this document is Almanac. January 17, 1995.