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Chancellor Kent Syverud Highlights Results, Discusses Civil Discourse and Free Speech with University Senate
The Chancellor delivered the following remarks to the University Senate on Sept. 18, 2019, Maxwell Auditorium:
I just want to thank Marcelle Haddix for stepping up as chair and for your remarks. And I agree, I just want to welcome all of our new senators. I just would observe that robust shared governance goes way back in our University’s history. I thank all of you for taking this seriously.
I want to first highlight progress made toward several very significant goals that has happened since we last met.
- First, we largely met our enrollment goals for the 2019 entering class. We welcomed 5,884 outstanding new members of the incoming class of undergraduate, graduate and professional students. I note that 26 percent of the class identifies as students of color and that doesn’t include well over 15 percent who are international students.
- Second, our University and deans and Advancement team raised more than $163 million by year end close on June 30—the most funds raised over one year in our history;
- Third, we closed this year on June 30 with a balanced budget—indeed a small surplus—and the Board in May approved a balanced budget for FY20, which we are running slightly ahead of at this point.
- Fourth, we are well on our way to our reaching our $100 million Invest Syracuse goal. As of June 30, $31 million of the tuition rebasing and cost reduction goal was achieved and our fundraising goal, which was a two-year goal of $40 million, was exceeded at $54 million.
- Fifth, the SEIU, our largest bargaining unit, and the University reached a favorable five-year agreement in our contract negotiations. It’s the longest contract in a long time and the first time in decades the new contract was ratified by June 30, before the old one expired. I think this is a great outcome for both our union members and the University, which allows us to plan over a longer horizon to 2024.
I believe the University has momentum from meeting these goals and from all of the work of people positioning of the University in our community. Meeting these goals enabled us to welcome a diverse group of new faculty to campus this fall—more than 107 full-time faculty and many part-time faculty. We are in a strong position to kick off the campaign in November. And meeting these goals certainly impacts our ability to deliver on the Academic Strategic Plan, including building and renovating buildings that will help us achieve that plan. You see a lot of high-profile construction projects on campus, but there were also 65 academic projects over the summer, including classrooms and auditoriums, technology upgrades and accessibility improvements. We are not all the way there yet. The room that the agenda committee meeting occurs in across the hall still has an overhead projector and a VCR in it. But for our student experience, this is particularly important.
The Atlantic Coast Conference Network launched in August in more than 35 million homes. There are a lot of benefits to this, but the most important for me are that our students can gain firsthand experience producing athletic broadcasts. Students from Newhouse, Maxwell and the Falk School are involved in that. There is also unprecedented coverage of ACC women’s athletics and we should all watch that.
I’ve heard from lots of people asking about Commencement 2020 since we last met, and that’s given the ongoing Stadium construction and the huge cranes. The construction requires that the building be vacated as of March 1. I know people are worried about having a wonderful Commencement experience when they can’t be in the Dome for this one year. Many people have been working hard on this issue all summer. Their strong advice is that Commencement 2020 be on the Shaw Quadrangle. We have explored many alternative options and prioritized, in choosing Shaw, the experience and tradition and accessibility that we can provide there. We are committed that the 2020 Commencement, which coincides with our 150th anniversary year, has to be very positive, very special and very memorable.
Tomorrow, we are going to be sending a message out to the entire campus community on the planning for Commencement 2020. And, in the coming weeks, the University will communicate with graduates and their families about specific events, activities and schedules.
And now, lastly, I have something that is particularly important, so I’d be grateful if you could just pay particular attention right now.
Here is the important thing.
Knowledge crowns those who seek her.
That is not a marketing slogan. It is the animating idea of our university since its founding.
We must seek knowledge.
In my view, seeking knowledge requires that each of us be willing to be uncomfortable at times.
Comfortable is what you are—what I am—when I am in a La-Z-Boy recliner eating potato chips. Comfortable is what you are when you are on vacation with your family.
In a real university, when you are seeking knowledge, you better be ready to be uncomfortable. And that’s because when you are genuinely seeking knowledge, you learn things you did not previously know, and sometimes you learn them from people you disagree with. And indeed, sometimes—indeed for me—what you learn is genuinely disruptive—and it can disrupt your whole world view. That has been true in physics and astronomy, including at this university. But it also has been true in law, and communications, and religion, and in gender studies, and so many other subjects, including in political science.
I believe that you are unlikely to learn very much at all if you are always comfortable at a great university. The definition of “comfortable” in academia really is the situation where you only listen to and hear from people with whom you already completely agree. A great university is not like, and we cannot become like, many viewers of Fox News and MSNBC.
And I say this to you today for three reasons. They are reasons that I think will make lots of people in our Orange community uncomfortable.
The first reason is about the free speech of our faculty and our students. I am not speaking here quite as much about our staff or those faculty who have administrative roles—and that’s because staff and administrators are often construed as speaking for the University, and that constrains them in their speech in ways that do not apply to our faculty generally or to our students. But with that possible exception, each of our faculty members—and each of our students—needs in the pursuit of knowledge to be able to say things and write things that can be troubling, provocative and at times makes many of the rest of us profoundly uncomfortable. Our students and faculty need to be protected in doing this from retribution except in very limited circumstances. That is why, in my role as Chancellor I have refused to censor faculty who say controversial things even when many in the world are howling for me to do it. In my role as Chancellor I refuse even to say I disagree with the faculty member except in very narrow circumstances—and for students I believe those circumstances are even narrower. I know the lines here are sometimes hazy and there are exceptions. Theta Tau springs to mind. Sometimes a University and Chancellor has to speak out. Most often that is necessary when words are accompanied by actions or by really extraordinary circumstances. I think these exceptions should be few and rare. Almost all of the time, students and faculty need the freedom of expression to at times make others uncomfortable. They need to have that freedom at Syracuse, and for most of our history they have enjoyed it. That is one major reason we can claim to be a real university.
The second reason I am addressing all this (and not just trying to give a sermon) is this: if we really want to protect our faculty and students in their free speech and in their pursuit of knowledge, we cannot silence people who express uncomfortable views. There are lots of ways in this troubling era to silence people we disagree with. Sure, the University can publicly censor them: “Professor X has academic freedom to say stupid things, but of course reasonable chancellors like me reject utterly everything the professor says.” That’s what a lot of president’s say! But that takes real courage to speak out in response to, even when you have tenure. That can silence people.
But there are also more insidious ways to silence people. We can denounce people by piling onto a petition before we have even tried to independently learn the facts or arguments. We can instantly assume bad faith on the part of others who are trying to seriously engage in discussion—indeed, we can attack comments that were probably intended in good faith, however misguided we think them. Indeed, we can if we are not careful to easily convert those comments into a formal complaint, thus inhibiting speech through fear of an administrative or legal bureaucracy.
Worst of all, we can simply shout down those we disagree with. We can yell louder or get more people to yell, so that the things that make us uncomfortable are not heard by anyone. And that is the academic equivalent of destroying the copies of the newspaper we disagree with, or hacking the website, or indeed burning or banning the books we disagree with in the library. We can impose our views on others by destroying the speech of those we disagree with. And that way almost always has ultimately led to disaster for all, including the people doing the destroying. I am worried about this issue in our country, so I am worried about this in the coming election year.
The third reason I am addressing the issue of free speech at a great university is the hardest one. If our students are going to learn, are going to seek knowledge and to grow, I think they need to be exposed to a true range of views, not a rigidly enforced and homogenous orthodoxy. That exposure is very difficult to achieve at a university, or in a department, where the faculty are too ideologically uniform. In hiring new faculty, I believe our university needs to be more attentive to this issue, and more concerned.
These second and third matters—the silencing of speech that makes some uncomfortable, and the exposure of our students to a range of views on uncomfortable subjects—are matters that I think need our attention this year, as we go into a polarized election and as we hire hundreds of new faculty.
Some of you, and many in our community, may (and I think probably will) disagree with some or all of what I have just said. And I say, good. Let’s talk about it, then. Let’s talk about it honestly, openly, civilly if possible, uncomfortably if needed, but let’s talk. As a steward of this university, I have a moral responsibility to speak up for what I think are the necessary conditions that enable us to seek knowledge. I do not have a monopoly on that moral responsibility. You all, each of you, share this responsibility for our Orange community. I could be wrong on aspects of this. I don’t think I am now, but Lord knows I have been wrong at times before. And so have each of you. So, I think we need to seek knowledge together and get something done on this now, this semester. I have members of our board who support me. I’d like our Senate to support me on this. Maybe not today, but soon. I think it is now vital to our future as a real university.
I know the provost and I will welcome questions now.