Academic Freedom on a Welcoming, Inclusive Campus

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Dear campus community,

In any other year, during Fall semester we would expect to walk across the Quad on our way to class or a meeting and experience the diverse perspectives held by those who compose the San Francisco State University community. You would likely encounter get-out-the-vote campaigners, invitations to join a club or participate in a demonstration and multiple invitations to add your voice. These activities and conversations make universities truly extraordinary places—where critical thinking is prized and nurtured and where disparate and often divergent opinions and world views are shared.

This exchange of ideas, though, is not always conflict-free, and San Francisco State finds itself again at the center of a national discussion about the boundaries and consequences of freedom of expression. Let me say clearly and quickly that SF State and I strongly condemn anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, racism, and other hateful ideologies that marginalize people based on their identities, origins or beliefs. Let me say equally emphatically that we support the right of our faculty to academic freedom and to conducting their teaching and scholarship without censorship. And I say this while also condemning the glorification and use of terrorism and violence, particularly against unarmed civilians. These need not be mutually exclusive positions. In fact, rejecting binaries and embracing hard-to-reconcile complexities are the hallmarks of the educational experience.

SF State is regularly noted as one of the most diverse campuses in the US—a point of pride for many of us. Our students are much more likely to sit next to someone from a different ethnic, racial, religious or socioeconomic background than students elsewhere. Often this promotes rich discussions and new understandings and enriches the academic experience. But we may also find ourselves seated next to or hearing from someone with completely divergent views and even views we find personally abhorrent. These encounters, here and at other universities, have sometimes led to discord, anger, confrontation and fear. We can allow these moments to pull us apart. Or we can use them to launch new conversations, offer alternative viewpoints and affirm our commitments to viewpoint diversity. We can use these deeply painful moments as opportunities to counter speech with more speech and more education. As an educational institution, all are encouraged to invite speakers, take positions, engage in debate without fear of retaliation or censorship. There is--and must be--space for all viewpoints at SF State.

We must couple our collective commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression with a collective commitment to being a welcoming and inclusive campus. We condemn ideologies of hatred and violence. We do this not by restricting protected speech, teaching or scholarship but by providing resources for those in need of support and, again, by facilitating educational opportunities that align with campus values and promote viewpoint diversity. We will exercise compassion and support those who are marginalized or fearful. Students who feel targeted, marginalized or discriminated against will find allies in all corners of our campus. The Division of Equity and Community Inclusion provides many resources for students and the community. I urge all to participate in their programs and get involved with their centers.  Students who feel targeted or who are harassed should immediately contact our Dean-on-Call or the Office of Equity Programs & Compliance.

Last year, I talked about engaging the campus in courageous conversations. There are no harder conversations than those centered on volatile political and cultural issues. My goal remains that we commit together to having these conversations, to allowing diverse viewpoints and to demonstrating compassion. But I am a realist and a historian. There will be times when conversation, let alone agreement, is impossible. There will be times when we find a course’s content or a speaker deeply offensive. I urge us to use these moments as opportunities to invite others to share their thoughts, ideas and words and not as evidence of permanent or widespread disagreement. We should not allow ourselves to be defined by the moments that divide us but by the opportunities to come together for the kinds of rich courageous conversations that only one of the most diverse universities in the world can foster.

As always, now, I wish you good health.


Lynn's Signature

Lynn Mahoney, Ph.D.