From the President: Mullen reflects on Tree of Life shooting

The horrific anti-Semitic hate crime at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the racially motivated shooting in the Kentucky grocery store that left two African-Americans dead and the explosive devices that were sent to prominent Americans last week have shown once again that still in our midst are senseless hatred and lack of regard for the inherent value and worth of every person.

I have asked for this opportunity to write an extended op-ed in The Campus because I believe this is a particularly important time for us all. Events of the past weeks and months have led me to think deeply about life on our campus and in the nation that our graduates will inherit. It is a moment that I believe should cause us all to reflect on the values that can unite us as a campus community and as a country. It is a moment to think deeply about how we can give life to those values on our campus and beyond.

The most fundamental of these values is respect for every person. This respect should be foundational for life on our campus and frame our daily work to build community at Allegheny and in the wider world.

Over the past several weeks, I have seen evidence of what Allegheny can be when it demonstrates such respect in the face of contentious and difficult issues. Three moments stand out for me, and I believe can inform us as we go forward.

In the aftermath of the anti-Semitic hate crime in Pittsburgh, I have seen so many members of our community reach out to our Jewish students to express support and be present for them in their grief and fear. Out of hate came a moment of solidarity and love, perhaps most powerfully evidenced by the vigil that students convened on Wednesday evening. That solidarity and love must continue.

In early October, students, faculty and staff came together to demonstrate following the public use of a racial epithet on our campus. I am grateful to all who stepped forward; in doing so, they reminded us of our community’s values. The result is work now taking place to assert an even clearer commitment to those values.

A third moment came in the days following the contentious hearings related to Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. As reported in last week’s issue of The Campus, I received a very thoughtful request from almost 150 alumni and current students asking me to rescind the Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life awarded to Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2013. That letter emerged from respect for the Prize and what it represents. It addressed language used by some United States senators in questioning motives behind Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations and the concern that such language could deter victims from coming forward. It was a powerful letter that has inspired important conversations on our campus, including with faculty who agree with its position and with others among our alumni who do not believe that Graham’s remarks warranted either rebuke or rescinding of the Prize.

The conversations I have had around the hearings and the importance of the Prize have reinforced several issues related to the core value of respect and how it should inform Allegheny’s commitment to civility in our public discourse. These conversations have been particularly meaningful in their focus on sexual misconduct.

Sexual misconduct and assault are a reprehensible affront to humanity. Across this nation, on campuses and in wider communities, sexual assault remains a particularly acute challenge facing America. As I have said in meetings of the faculty and in other forums, it is important that we acknowledge that reality in a candid manner that ensures that victims know their voices are heard and taken seriously. This must remain a commitment that unites us as a campus. It will remain a test of our community’s commitment to our values.

The events of the last several weeks have also invited reflection on what civility means in conversations here and in our wider national politics. This is a matter of particular significance at Allegheny, where the Prize has earned us a voice on the issue of civility in public life.

By Oxford’s definition, civil discourse “does not silence or derogate alternative views, but instead evidences respect.” The civility that I hope for in our public discourse grows from that definition. It is not grounded in polite acceptance of injustice; nor should it remove passion from politics. It should be rooted firmly in respect for every person, a willingness to hear and consider opposing viewpoints, caution in attaching motive to a person’s actions, and, most importantly, a refusal to demonize those with whom we disagree.

The civility that I hope for is not the purview of either the right or the left, conservative or liberal. No political philosophy or party is the sole proprietor of either civility or incivility. We should be able to hear and respect both conservative and liberal voices, always trying to win the day by better factual arguments rather than by demonization, insult, or the refusal to listen.

In each of the instances that I reference above, the Allegheny community has stepped up to speak out against injustice, against hatred, and against a lack of respect for the values to which we as a community aspire. In each case, I have heard voices that resonated with conviction and a commitment to civility. Most importantly, I have heard voices that are committed to our Statement of Community and the ongoing work of strengthening our community.

Recently, I was asked to speak at the memorial service for our long-time colleague and professor of political science, Bruce Smith. In my remarks, I quoted from a speech Bruce gave several years ago at matriculation in which he said, “Common ground, wherever it exists, is always in need of repair as well as enlargement.”

Building common ground upon a foundation of respect for each other must remain the unifying theme of our campus community. The work is hard and can be frustrating, but in so many moments over the past months and during the 11 years I have been president, I have seen our campus come together to “repair and enlarge.” With shared purpose, we can continue to do so and, as we do, set an important example for America.