January 8, 2014
As the school year began, UCLA welcomed some of the most diverse classes of new graduate and undergraduate Bruins ever admitted. This provides us with a valuable opportunity to think about how all of us will be further enriched by the wide variety of experiences and views each student brings to UCLA. And as we look forward to the coming year, one aspiration I hope we all take to heart is honoring the diversity of our community.
Our diversity is a gift of extraordinary value, and is one of the most celebrated aspects of life at UCLA. Our campus depends on a foundation of mutual respect and I expect each of you to take advantage of the opportunity to build positive and meaningful relationships with individuals from every imaginable background. In our increasingly global world, those connections could well be one of the most valuable experiences you have at UCLA, better preparing you for the world beyond our campus.
All of us work hard to maintain an environment where everyone feels welcomed and accepted. Unfortunately, intolerance and painful ideological conflict continue to exist. Recently members of the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine spoke to me concerning incidents of verbal harassment and even physical attacks suffered by Muslim and SJP students in recent years. I have had similar conversations with other groups as well. Regardless to whom they are directed, incidents of harassment and intolerance wound every one of us who cherishes a civil community. It is also imperative to acknowledge additional instances of intolerance and bias-related behavior in which students have experienced sobering and disturbing incidents based upon their membership in a specifically identifiable group. Sadly, even as most students co-exist respectfully and productively within our campus, virtually all of our student communities have been the targets of intolerance and bias, including Vietnamese students, Asian/Asian American students, African American students, Jewish students, Chicana/o/Latina/o students, and LGBT students, among others.
As a campus, we must take a decisive and unwavering stand—including disciplinary or legal action when appropriate—against acts that threaten or endanger any member of our community. We must also hope that difficult situations become catalysts for reflection, introspection, and constructive action. As we welcome a full range of ideas and perspectives, we need to understand that inevitably there will be strongly-felt disagreements.
Ideological differences and conflict are basic elements in the foundation of intellectual life. Critical inquiry and passionate advocacy are signs of vibrant intellectual engagement. Divergent points of view are stated, discussed, and, if not resolved, ideally should form a fuller understanding of the issue at hand. Robust debate is healthy. However we have to acknowledge the difference between debating others and demeaning them and note that events like the “affirmative action bake-sale,” intended to dramatize opposition to affirmative action policies, will inevitably be painful for underrepresented communities and deeply offensive to many.
We all must remember that communities are not just a given. They are built. And they can be fragile. Even in the midst of passionate debate we must keep in mind the humanity of others and exercise the respect, compassion and even restraint that are essential for a community to endure. As an academic community, we hope to see respectful disagreement, constructive dialogue, and perhaps some convergence in the ideological separation of our concerned members. However, we also know that issues such as these can generate emotionally charged and sometimes conflict-laden reactions. We must make a commitment as a community to do all we can to ensure that these and future discussions of difference remain respectful, productive, and focused on understanding rather than division.
No one should ever have to deal with anything less than mutual respect and equal consideration from their peers and their community. We have the opportunity to create a model of the world as it should be – a place where diversity of backgrounds and experiences fosters an environment of respect, understanding, and compassion. I hope you will join in the challenging, but essential, process of continuing to build such a community.