Wednesday, December 6
Academic Task Force on Building Community for Democracy
Dear UC Faculty and Staff,

The loss of life and humanitarian crisis which terrorism and war have inflicted on Israel and Palestine continue to shock us all. Some of you have sadly been directly affected through family and friends, and all of us are horrified by the violence inflicted on innocents. In our own communities and nation, another disturbing outcome has been the rash of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic responses, ranging from vicious social media rhetoric to physical attacks and even rallies calling for the death of Jews or Palestinians.

Sadly, higher education has been part of this. A growing list of colleges have reported “abusive and discriminatory behavior” including death threats, hate mail and vandalism, with faculty, staff and students being targeted, harassed, and assaulted. The Department of Education has had to reiterate schools' responsibility to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the legal obligation to provide all students a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.

This is hardly the first troubling scenario our university has faced. In 204 years, we have dealt with our share of divisive social and political issues and the struggles that inevitably ensue. And I want to stress that we must continue to address these challenges as members of the Bearcat community, with the deepest regard for our core values.

As I wrote last month, our university must represent an inclusive space where everyone should feel empowered to learn, work, grow and thrive in a safe and supportive environment. We must continue to ensure that our campus is safe and welcoming for every single person; we are resolutely committed to this through the present crisis.

As an institution for higher learning, however, we are called to do more. We must seek to understand how best to help our students deal with the divisions and conflicts they are currently facing and will inevitably face in the future. The ugliness we see far too often in our society as a reaction to difference hurts us all. I’m concerned that we may not be fully providing the knowledge and skills that enable our students — our future graduates and leaders — to wrestle effectively with such issues.

Our mission as scholars, as students of the world, is to constantly reexamine facts and methods in order to disprove an assumption or shore up a bedrock theory. As educators, too, we must be willing to reexamine academic offerings and approaches to make our students even better at listening, at critical thinking, at testing opinions and beliefs in the crucible of facts and knowledge. This is the only way to find solutions for the conflicts and difficult issues that will always be with us. 

We should ask ourselves: What is it we need to focus on in our educational offerings that will address even more effectively our society’s growing inability to find shared solutions around divisive issues? Is there something missing?

To address these questions, I am establishing an Academic Task Force on Building Community for Democracy which will be led by Executive Vice President and Provost, Valerio Ferme. I will be announcing the full membership of the Task Force early in the Spring semester. Our university is blessed with an incredible pool of academic experts from which we will draw members.

The Task Force will study the current rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in our communities, to understand what impedes our working with opponents and through problems to gain the mutual understanding that is essential for resolving any complex issue. If we truly want a pluralistic society, we must rise above real and perceived divisions to understand our differences. This is our only path to a lasting common ground, and it is quite literally a life-or-death choice. In the words of French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, “To exist is to co-exist.”

Such understanding of difference is arguably what higher education does best. In environments both demographically and intellectually diverse, colleges and universities address division in a way that shunts aside anger, hate and violence in favor of thoughtful disagreement. As the polymath Bertrand Russell once remarked, “The thing, above all, that teachers should endeavor to produce in their pupils is the kind of tolerance that springs from an endeavor to understand those who are different from ourselves.”

A college education does more than fill one’s head with facts, much less opinions. It teaches the habits of mind that lead to a full, satisfying life. It doesn’t render us all the same, except in the sense of recognizing that what we hold in common far outweighs what divides us. And it opens us both to ancient wisdom and to new discoveries, makes us citizens of every country and time. In a world as rich and complex as ours, at a moment fraught with such chasms of misunderstanding, I can think of no greater gift.

Neville G. Pinto