New Paltz Students, Faculty, and Staff:
This summer’s horrific events and the increasingly divisive, intolerant, and hateful national discourse have weighed heavily on all of us. I, along with other campus leaders, know that these events and the tone of our national conversation bring anger, fear, confusion, and anxiety for members of our campus community. The timing of these events, when most students and many faculty are away from campus, makes it difficult to come together to process and try to understand what is happening, support each other at a difficult time, and chart productive ways forward.
Each of these recent events is shocking in its own right. Their totality is nearly incomprehensible: the senseless mass shooting on Latin Night at a gay bar in Orlando; the very visible shooting deaths of black men by police; the targeted killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge; the jarring, hurtful dialogue about immigrants and immigration; indications of increasing religious intolerance; events around the world that raise great fears about the global future; the rhetoric of hate, divisiveness, and intolerance in our national conversation.
As a university community, we must commit to honest discussion of these broader events and their impact on the lives of our students, employees, and alumni, even as we stay focused on our core educational mission. I would hope that we practice patience and understanding with one another, recognizing that individuals have different levels of comfort and experience with these difficult conversations. We also must double down on our work to create a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and safe campus, giving our students the knowledge and capacities to live and contribute to a just and fair society – and to create a better way of life for themselves and generations to come.
As you return to campus this fall, or join us as a new student or employee, I ask that you recognize and respect the hurt, anger, and fear that many members of our community may be feeling, and that many undoubtedly will carry into our classrooms, residence halls, campus dining areas, and other places where we meet and gather. It is important that we all – employees and students alike – engage in conversation to help educate each other about these complex events, and to build individual connections and stronger understanding of each other. We must not allow fault lines in our broader society to lead to fractures in our campus community. I ask faculty to consider this as they prepare syllabi and launch new classes; I ask staff to take this into account as they prepare for the return of students and the arrival of new ones.
We are planning several separate memorial events and activities early in the semester to help us process events of the past few months and to honor those who have been so deeply affected by these events and by the national rhetoric about our nation and the world, present and future. Also early in the fall semester, you will have an opportunity to participate in the planning process for our diversity, equity, and inclusion plan, begun this summer by a broad-based task force of students, faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni. That plan will lay out concrete steps and directions to continue advancing our goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
We also are planning events this fall about free and responsible speech on college and university campuses, recognizing that it is part of our purpose to engage in the free exchange of ideas, even with people whose views we disagree with. We want to practice and test civil discourse and debate, the best of the university ideal, and to prepare graduates who can advance the level of discourse on our campuses, communities, and the nation.
In the meantime, students who are on campus and would benefit from assistance in processing these recent events may contact the Psychological Counseling Center (257-2920) or the Dean of Students (257-3261), and employees may reach out to the Employee Assistance Program (257-2886). Tanhena Pacheco Dunn, Chief Diversity Officer (effective August 1) can be reached at 257-3172.
I have been president of this institution for six years. If I were asked how I think the campus community will deal with these challenges in the coming academic year, I would say with confidence that I have witnessed time after time how this community has come together in times of crises and disagreement and demonstrated the ability to model the best of civil and informed discourse, compassion and caring for each other. We have had disagreements, experienced loss, experienced micro-aggressions and offensive behavior against individuals and our community as a whole. Time and time again in those instances, we have created spaces for people to voice their concerns and engage each other’s differences. I’ve watched our staff and faculty model inclusion and empathy in guiding students in those conversations. Do we hit snags and roadblocks as a community? Yes, no community can claim to navigate these conversations perfectly. But this is a special community, one that celebrates its diversity and strives to maintain an environment where all feel welcome, supported and can thrive. Can we do better? Absolutely. But the hard work we have done to date will serve us well in the coming months as we engage in what will no doubt be difficult conversations.
I look forward to our community coming together for the start of the next academic year, perhaps especially in such troubled times.
Donald P. Christian