A University is a place where search for truth can go on unhindered
By Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw
No one in this country has escaped the effects of Sept. 11, 2001. Naturally, those who suffered loss directly through the attacks on New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania are uppermost in our minds.
And there are scores of others who have been permanently scarred. I think of the men and women who have devoted hours of the hardest labor, sifting through the rubble in the hope of finding a survivor. The things they have seen are nearly incomprehensible and will remain forever etched in their memories.
Still others have stood by, day after day, ready to help the helpers. They have provided medical care, food, shelter, comfort and praise. They have done this not only for themselves but also as representatives of hundreds of thousands of us for whom being there in person was impossible.
We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude, just as we are grateful to the many members of this community who gave so freely of themselves by donating blood, by giving money, by collecting supplies for the rescuers and by sending words of comfort.
We know we as individuals will never be the same.
And Syracuse University will never be the same.
In the near future, our nation will be dealing with a number of challenging issues: the balance between personal security and liberty; the balance between the use of military power and the practice of diplomacy; the nature of sacrifice in a land of plenty; and so much more.
Here at Syracuse University, as we deal with these issues, we must make certain that we remain true to the essence of a university: a place where the search for truth can go on, unhindered by fear of reprisal.
This is the unique role granted to universities in a free society. It is our fundamental reason for being, and it is a role that carries special responsibilities.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t for a minute believe that universities have found the truth. Universities are, after all, collections of people, people who are just as fallible as those found anywhere else.
The difference is that we are expected to be more open to new truths than other groups, more willing to entertain new perspectives, to alter our views in light of new information and to respond to new knowledge created among us.
As avid learners, we are continually involved in the process of testing our beliefs against the new information and new knowledge that arises from our work as scholars and researchers. This process, by its very nature, creates tension, and thereby tests again our essence as a university.
For the sake of our country—a free and open country—and for the sake of universities across the nation, it is critical that we perform our role well. The pursuit of truth is essential for a present worth preserving and essential for a future worth our hope.
How, then, might we go about fulfilling our role as pursuers of truth?
• First, let’s acknowledge that truth is evasive and tentative. Absolutes are comforting. It is very tempting, especially under stress, to hold tight to a set of beliefs while ignoring any information that runs counter to them. But that way has led to countless errors in human judgment and much worse. Let’s not forget that humankind’s most egregious offenses have been committed by people who were sure they were right. History is proof. From the Inquisition to the Nazi Holocaust to the attacks of Sept. 11, we can see the destruction created by zealotry. Insofar as we know, those responsible for the carnage saw themselves as striking at the heart of American licentiousness, greed, corruption and apostasy.
• Second, we can feel free to state our personal truths. That is our right and obligation in a country and in a university that fully support both freedom of speech and academic freedom.
• We can acknowledge our responsibility to respectfully hear the views of others. That does not mean we shouldn’t openly disagree. Indeed, I believe it is quite possible to oppose a set of beliefs and remain civil at the same time. What is not appropriate is creating an atmosphere in which only certain views are respected and others are shut out of the discourse.
I repeat that the role of a university in a free society is to create an environment in which all views can be freely expressed and examined. Higher education does not have a clean track record in fulfilling its role. During the McCarthy era, too many institutions looked the other way when scholars were blacklisted and ostracized by a set of beliefs borne out of post-WWII paranoia.
Think back to the turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were teach-ins and sit-ins and a variety of activities ostensibly to shed light on the conflict in Vietnam. But the reality was that only certain views held sway. Those who might have supported the war were essentially silenced.
• Further, as we search for truth, let’s not permit blaming of any person or group on the basis of religion or nationality or color. There is no place for scapegoating at an institution of higher learning.
• A university is a place where laws and institutional policies must be upheld. It is only in the context of an orderly, respectful environment that the pursuit of truth can best proceed. To do otherwise is to create an atmosphere of chaos rather than of dialogue.
• In spite of our grief, our anger, and our confusion, let’s resolve to go on—not so much to put the horror of the recent past behind us, as to accept that we have been changed and to refuse to be diverted from our primary purpose.
If truth is elusive, are there no guidelines that we, as members of a university community, can turn to? To me there is one. We can believe that this is a place where views are freely expressed and knowledge sought for the good of this university and for the good of a free society.
To this end, a committee chaired by David Rubin, dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. is developing a series of programs to take place throughout the semester in which faculty with expertise in the key issues can lead us in discussions. Different perspectives will be presented with ample time for spirited dialogue. This will be just a small part of what members of the University community will provide.
We won’t expect a collective truth to emerge from these discussions—rather the considerable insights that will come forward can help people to make up their own minds, again, in an effort to pursue the truth.