Welcome back students

08-23-2016

A new academic year is opening, and with it our campus opens to a new community of scholars. Welcome to this gathering place for people and ideas. A fascinating, challenging year awaits, as it has since classes began in 1857.

Our first students didn’t expect an easy experience, knowing they would contribute labor as well as brainpower to build this institution. Their legacy is a magnificent campus for us to carry on pursuit of social mobility, collective economic competitiveness, and the common good of a global society.

Michigan State faculty and staff and our undergraduate and graduate student leadership are committed to making this a place where every person is valued and respected. Actions or speech meant to demean individuals or groups based on race, gender or sexual orientation, nationality, or culture are at odds with our values. Spartans reject such speech and actions as unworthy of our collective identity and our sense of community.

There are more than 60,000 students, faculty, and staff on campus this year, each of us offering different backgrounds and experiences. This wealth of perspectives plays an important part in helping develop what former MSU President John Hannah called the citizen-scholar—the educated, involved individual who is the underpinning of a working democracy. (That relationship, recognized long ago by the nation’s founders, found its most recent proof in a newly published economic study (PDF).)

For the past year I’ve been honored to chair the board of the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 leading United States and Canadian institutions. A few years ago the AAU released a statement that included this salient passage:

“For the university to fulfill its obligations to academic freedom and to intellectual development, it must provide a forum in which individuals and groups can advocate their views. It must assure an environment for civil discourse to take place free of violence and intimidation. The university must also protect the rights of all members of the campus community to pursue their reasons for being on campus: the work of learning, teaching, scholarship and research, uninterrupted by anyone.”

Campuses are often accused of (or romanticized as) living in an academic bubble. But as the nation’s pioneer land-grant university, Michigan State in fact carries a special obligation to engage with society in addressing contemporary issues, making a difference in the future even as we prepare our students for it. Our teaching, research, and outreach promote a culture of questioning and high expectations.

This experience cannot be had without leaving our own comfort zones or without confronting contrary perspectives and those who hold them. Universities are continually buffeted by clashing ideologies, and today’s society seems especially polarized. But debate is a cherished tradition in higher learning and campuses have long been places where ideas compete on their own merits. We can expect to learn from one another, privileged to pursue growth in such a diverse, talented community as this. Yet of all the expectations due us, a guarantee that in our daily interactions we will not find our values and beliefs challenged, and even be offended by such challenges, isn’t one of them.

A fully engaged, global research university such as ours must create the space for sometimes-difficult conversations, but it must also be a place of commitment to free expression of and reflection upon opposing viewpoints. As much as society today needs the knowledge and innovation that drive our research, it needs us to develop resilient, inclusive leaders ready to work in a diverse, global, and fast-changing world.

For a related discussion, I urge you to click to MSU’s statement on freedom of speech.

 

 

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