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Academic Senate Chair Robert Cherny:
Classroom discourse must remain civil


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By the next time we meet, on March 11, it seems possible, even likely, that our nation will be at war.

As I take the pulse of the faculty, I find a great deal of opposition to war with Iraq. But there is also some grudging support for it. It is likely that our student body is more divided than the faculty. Furthermore, there may be members of our university community who have relatives and friends in the military, at the front lines of war.

During the weeks and months to come, as we face the likelihood and probably the reality of war, please remember that we are all members of the University community, and that when the war is over we shall all still be members of the University community.

A University community is like no other community. It is based on the search for knowledge, on reasoned analysis, on empirically based conclusions. Universities are extremely durable institutions. But the bonds of community based on this shared commitment to the creation and transmission of knowledge can be surprisingly fragile -- as I learned at Columbia in 1968 and as I observed when I arrived at San Francisco State in 1971. We all need to work consciously to nurture the bonds of our community.

In the aftermath of May 7, we have heard students say that, when they are in class or on campus, they have sometimes -- or even often -- felt intimidated from speaking their true feelings about events in the Middle East. We owe it to our students to keep any classroom discussions of the war at a level that respects differences of opinion and that permits students to express their views without feeling that they are at risk. Please think carefully about what you say and do in class, and urge your colleagues to do the same.

We need to have reasoned discourse on our nation's foreign policy, just as we also need to respect informed opinions and personal commitments that are different than our own. If you are opposed to the war, remember to direct your antagonism toward the decision-makers in Washington, not toward members of the University community who disagree with you. If you support the war, remember that the enemy does not include members of the University community who are exercising their constitutional rights of free speech, press, and assembly to oppose the war.

At a time when passions will be running high, it is all the more important that we continue to emphasize the importance of reasoned and informed discourse in our classes, in our conversations, and in our lives.

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Last modified March 14, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs