Rochester – the University and the City – has been my home for more than 40 years. Today’s news regarding the arrest of a member of our campus community for improper posting of Identity Evropa propaganda in Brighton saddens, disappoints, and frightens me, as I expect it does many of you. As a professor and a citizen, I am deeply disturbed by the views expressed by the leaders of this organization, which describes itself as “identitarian,” but which I see as hateful and divisive. My visceral reaction is compounded by the anonymous method of spreading these views, which I believe is meant to intimidate.
In my current role as president, and prior to that in my role as dean of the College, I’ve seen it as my responsibility to do whatever I could to make our campus as welcoming and supportive as possible. But my reaction transcends my professional capacity: for me, this is personal. Over the years, I have come to appreciate how structures and circumstances, both here at the University and in society more broadly, can marginalize people, making them unwelcome and unsafe. I believe I’ve gained at least some understanding of the ways in which I have been privileged in not having to overcome the obstacles others face, due to race or gender or religious belief or other characteristics. I want to do what I can to remove these obstacles.
The vexing issues we face now, both in this case and in society at large, present a puzzle of a sort that intrigues philosophers like me. When you advocate for inclusion, it may seem unclear what your attitude should be toward those who advocate for exclusion. From my perspective, the answer is clear: in our democracy, all people are permitted to hold and express their views, even those others may disagree with and find offensive. This does not mean that people are permitted to harass, intimidate, threaten, or harm. Nor does this mean that we cannot call out hateful and bigoted views for what they are. I realize that the boundaries between protected free speech and unprotected speech can be hard to draw, but drawing them is one of the challenges – and advantages – of a free society.
So where do we go from here? As I see it, we must take this moment as an opportunity to increase our efforts to identify and bridge some of the divides we see and experience every day on our campus. We may not always come to agreement but we must actively seek a deeper understanding and respect for others. In the coming days I will be consulting with the University Diversity and Equity Council and other members of the University community for their ideas about meaningful action in response to this incident and how we can strengthen our commitments to the University’s Vision and Values. I encourage you to reach out to one another, and to redouble your efforts to better understand the lived experiences of your classmates, your teachers, and your colleagues. We are all in this together.