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February 14, 2017

To the greater Santa Clara University community:

Tensions on campus have risen sharply in recent weeks, precipitated by disruptive events on and off the campus, a deeply polarized political environment, and a new level of highly-charged rhetoric sweeping the nation. During these turbulent times, I wish to share some of my reflections on how Santa Clara University can constructively engage the campus community in a manner true to its mission as a Jesuit Catholic University.

Santa Clara University is first and foremost a university– committed to the free exchange of ideas and the unbridled pursuit of truth. The university promotes the intellectual life by modeling for its students a spirit of free inquiry, involving the rigorous evaluation of evidence and the critical assessment of ideas. While we each approach the pressing issues of our time with a set of biases and presuppositions, it is important that we weigh arguments across the entire spectrum of thought, theory and opinion.

Even as Santa Clara University encourages and defends unfettered discourse, the institution does not pretend to be agnostic with regard to the ideals it professes. Founded in the Jesuit Catholic tradition, Santa Clara University is animated by a firm belief in the human dignity of each individual, a conviction that our gifts and talents are to be developed and used for the service of others, a commitment to social justice with a particular concern for the needs of the most vulnerable, and a shared institutional vision to help build a more humane, just and sustainable world. These values provide a lens through which we view and judge what is right and just.

Individuals may find the ideas of some speakers to be unsettling or even repugnant. However, we ought not attempt to prohibit such ideas from being expressed; rather we should listen intently, weigh the relevant evidence, examine critically, consider alternative views, and when appropriate, challenge unsound ideas publicly through persuasive argument and/or expressive activities. In the words of the late Georgetown theologian– Rev. James Walsh, S.J.– “The remedy for silly or extreme or offensive ideas is not less free speech but more.”

These ideals are well-articulated in Santa Clara University’s Student Handbook:

We are best served by an educational experience enriched by exposure to differing, and, indeed, to antithetical, opinion. Debating of “uncomfortable” ideas or points of view ought not to be shunned just because it is uncomfortable, for it may stimulate us to think and to think seriously. Thoughtful dialogue in search of truth leads to critical thinking, informed learning, and an honest exchange of facts, beliefs, and points of view. The belief system allowed to go untested is likely to be found weakest in the face of argumentative challenge.

Within civic discourse, we certainly do not expect or desire for everyone to share the same ideas or opinions. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the thirteenth century, “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in finding it.”

I wish to underscore that the freedom of expression on our campus does not extend to activities that are illegal under federal or state law, or that are in direct violation of University policy or the student conduct code. For example, the University does not permit any speech, act, or harassing action that targets, threatens, or attacks an individual or group because of its actual or perceived race, color, national origin, religious creed, gender identity, sexual orientation, or other status protected by law. In fostering dialogue and an atmosphere of free speech, it is our duty as members of the Santa Clara community not to intentionally or gratuitously inflict harm on others.

What then is required for candid civil discourse on campus? The choice rests with each of us to be inclusive and open to others while conscientiously expressing our own views and opinions. I am convinced that the Santa Clara community, blessed with its diversity of thought and lived experience, can become a model of dialogue and action for our divided nation and broken world.

With hope for a brighter future,

Dennis C. Jacobs, Ph.D.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

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