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Respect at the UI

BY SALLY MASON - GUEST OPINION | APRIL 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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Universities have a unique distinction as safe havens for the free and open exchange of ideas among individuals from all walks of life. Not only is such communal civil dialogue and respect for different people and ideas encouraged on campuses nationwide, it is an essential part of fostering enlightenment and mutual understanding in a global society.

It is for this reason that incidents such as what we've experienced at the University of Iowa this past week cannot go unaddressed or permitted to threaten the very core of our being.

Although these well-publicized events appear to be isolated and disparate in nature, involving a relatively small number of individuals in a large neighborhood that is a microcosm of society at-large, they nonetheless tarnish our stature as a thoughtful, welcoming community that embraces diversity and encourages discourse that spans ideological, cultural, and philosophical spectrums.

Senseless acts of racism, homophobia, religious or political intolerance, and any form of harassment have no place in a campus environment — even when hurled from a window or retorted through cyberspace. A lack of personal confrontation or physical harm makes these incidents no less deplorable and unacceptable.

Campus communities are increasingly rare sanctuaries of civility that we work hard to protect and help thrive. Freedom of expression, multiculturalism, opposing viewpoints, and spirited debate about opposing viewpoints is what makes a truly great university and, in turn, an educated, thoughtful citizenry prepared to improve the world around them.

Our core values include the embrace of diversity and respect. Because diversity, broadly defined, advances our mission of teaching, research, and service, the university is dedicated to an inclusive community in which people of different cultural, national, personal, and academic backgrounds encounter one another in a spirit of cooperation, openness, and shared appreciation.

We also strongly encourage student engagement in such discussions and support students acting on their viewpoints. Student organizations sometimes are formed along political lines and act on their political beliefs. Even if we personally disagree with those viewpoints, we must be respectful of those viewpoints in every way. Intolerant and disrespectful discord is not acceptable behavior.

In short, we will not stand idle and allow members of our community to face verbal, physical, or emotional abuse. We are one community, and actions that denigrate an individual or group denigrate the entire university.

We've handled these recent incidents swiftly and appropriately, investigating to determine the responsible parties. At least some of the behaviors exhibited may constitute a violation of university policy, and those found responsible may be subject to university sanctions and possible criminal charges.

We stated earlier this week in response to these incidents that the University of Iowa is committed to maintaining an environment that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of every person and fosters tolerance, sensitivity, understanding, and mutual respect.

If we truly embrace this statement and wish to fulfill our obligation as a place where open and non-threatening discourse is allowed to flourish for the greater good, it is incumbent upon all of us to bear the responsibility for improving our campus climate and preventing thoughtless, impetuous, and threatening behavior from rearing its head again.

To that end, it is our collective obligation to look within ourselves and among our peers to root out, condemn, and rid our community of hateful and intolerant attitudes.

Sally Mason is the president of the University of Iowa.


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