The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA
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Finding Common Ground

Edgar Bronfman's eloquent and personal Commencement talk to our 1,814 graduating bachelor's and master's students, on a picture-perfect Sunday in May, spoke of his own personal leadership for Holocaust victims and survivors, while likening it to broader ethnic, racial, and religious conflict.

"I hate the words 'ethnic cleansing,'" he stated. "Mankind doesn't seem to have learned the lesson of the Holocaust--what hatred, racism, and xenophobia eventually lead to."

This message is relevant to us, as a University community. I have written earlier in this column about the increasing globalization of our community, as well as of our curriculum. The intellectual universe is not defined by national boundaries, and leadership as a great national university today requires an increasingly international reach. This globalization is therefore as natural as it is inexorable.

Making this increasingly multifaceted academic community work brings with it the reality that, with differences, come enormous opportunities to learn, to broaden our horizons, and to rethink our assumptions--values that are at the core of the academic mission. It also brings the potential for increasing conflict, balkanization, and tensions within our own community.

Just as these concerns--as Mr. Bronfman reminded us, in their most extreme form--seem to pass from culture to culture and generation to generation, it is not possible to believe that we, at the University of Rochester, will ever eradicate within our own community the tensions and conflicts that come from deeply held beliefs and cultures brought in, so to speak, from the "outside."

Even within our own national borders, unresolved racial tensions and issues remain at the forefront of social policy and concerns, and last spring we at the University of Rochester were reminded by our students how much work we still have to do in this dimension.

As reported in Rochester Review, students held a "sit-in" in Wallis Hall in February to demonstrate their concerns about ethnic diversity. An unfortunate confrontation later in the semester between minority students and a security officer exacerbated tensions on campus.

Indeed, conversations with African-American and Hispanic student leaders brought home to me how much the issues of tensions and understanding reside within the student community and are not solely a student-administration issue. Those tensions and concerns about the levels of understanding, which go to the nature of how the community evolves and acknowledges the central values and concerns of all its members, are not likely to diminish as our community incorporates more international students as well.

And yet, as we commit ourselves to work on these issues, I also believe that the very values of an academic community--which searches for its own sense of truth and intellectual advances and where intellectual "yeastiness" is a demonstrably positive value--place universities precisely at the forefront of bringing modern meaning to our nation's motto: "E pluribus unum."

Last spring also saw a positive and extraordinarily moving event that exemplifies the possibilities of a university environment. Our students put together "A Celebration of Religious Diversity" at the Interfaith Chapel. During the evening, students whose lives are fundamentally defined by a variety of religions--Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Latter Day Saints Christian, Muslim, Pentecostal Christian, Sikh, and Unitarian Universalist--discussed their beliefs, talked about stereotypes, and, generally, celebrated their own religious faiths while providing visible support to their fellow students of differing persuasions. Indeed, in preparing for the evening, the students found themselves moving closer together, even as they worked on presenting their differences.

It was an extraordinary evening, and one that I believe could best take place in a university community, where the academic nature of that community, at its core, encourages exactly this kind of dialogue and bridge-building, even about our most fundamental beliefs and attributes.

It is why I believe that, while universities will inevitably mirror the tensions that our broader societies exhibit, the increasingly diverse nature of our academic community is a cause for significant optimism, both about our own community and about the kind of leaders we will be preparing for the world's communities in the coming century.

Thomas H. Jackson

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