Debate, disagreement and dialogue

headshot of CWRU President Barbara R. SnyderTo the Faculty, Staff and Students of Case Western Reserve:

We begin this academic year with the tragedy in Charlottesville fresh in mind.

Headlines nationwide question how universities will balance free speech, campus safety and inclusion—with definitions of success depending largely on who is asking.

Between the vile sentiments expressed in Virginia this month and the fiery protests at Berkeley last February, the challenges that demonstrators and speakers can pose are unmistakable.

Our top priority is equally unambiguous: In any circumstance, our chief concern is the well-being of our community.

But this commitment does not mean closing our campus. An essential part of learning is exposure to new ideas and perspectives—even those we find objectionable or abhorrent. As a university, we have an obligation to prepare students for their lives after graduation—lives where they inevitably will encounter opinions at odds with their own.

We must provide students the knowledge and skills needed to listen, understand, argue, and, at times, acknowledge that others may have valid perspectives. This education takes place largely in classrooms, but also can be found at invited lectures, within student organizations, and, sometimes, on the playing field.

Fulfilling these responsibilities also means providing an environment of diversity—of race, age, ethnicity, geography, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, and disability. We also support diversity of thought, pedagogy, religion and political affiliation.

Stifling debate risks depriving students of the opportunity to experience difficult, even painful, concepts in a setting full of multiple kinds of guidance and support. It also can keep them from acquiring the resilience to be able to endure despicable comments—as well as the skills to rebut them.

We open this academic year in a moment of profound polarization—about politics, economics, social issues and more. The latest Gallup poll on the question broadly found 77 percent said the U.S. was divided on its core values—the poll’s highest number ever reported.

Bridging this chasm demands a willingness to engage with those with whom we differ. It also requires that we draw clear distinctions between outright threat and robust disagreement. At Case Western Reserve, we will not tolerate words or actions that aim specifically to intimidate or menace. But we will encourage you to articulate your thoughts, beliefs and viewpoints in constructive and mutually respectful ways.

To our first-year students, may today be a wonderful introduction to college classes. To the rest of our community, thank you for all that you have done, and will do, for our campus and one another.


Barbara R. Snyder