outlining SFSU's response to campus events
July 25, 2002
Chancellor Charles B. Reed
Dear Chancellor Reed:
In response to Governor Davis's letter to you and President Atkinson expressing concern about reported acts of anti-Semitism on UC and CSU campuses, I am pleased to provide a comprehensive account of the extensive range of our activities at San Francisco State University -- both proactive and in response to the campus events of this spring. The following summarizes the information I have provided to you incrementally over the last several months as our planning and actions unfolded. It also includes a new initiative that has emerged very recently -- an agreement between me and Chancellor Berdahl that our institutions will work together to share constructive strategies and create major public forums addressing such issues as civil discourse, free speech, and hate speech. In all, I believe both you and Governor Davis will see in this information both specific responses to each of his action requests and the seriousness, depth, and effectiveness of our efforts to make this campus a safe and sustaining environment for all, with zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim prejudice, hate speech, or intimidation.
Though much of this campus's recent activity was prompted by a May 7 pro-Israel rally on campus, sponsored by Hillel, which ended angrily -- though, significantly, without violence -- in a prolonged confrontation between Hillel students and pro-Palestinian students, our efforts to ensure a wholesome campus atmosphere actually began last fall, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. I established a model that we have continued all year of periodically communicating with all SFSU faculty, staff and students via e-mail. The messages acknowledged the strong emotions we all were feeling, reinforced our positive goals, and urged us to treat each other well. As I wrote on October 8, 2001:
"Now more than ever, we need to do our best to see that our most cherished right, that of free speech, is complemented by another of our highest values: respect for the views, feelings, and human dignity of others. It is not easy to find this balance, particularly when the subjects we are discussing -- culpability for terrorism, America's role and impact on the world, culture and religion -- are automatically sensitive." (A full picture of our response to the September 11 events has been collected on the following SFSU Web site: http://www.sfsu.edu/~news/response/).
Last spring, well before the May 7 rally, the terrible turmoil in the Middle East prompted me again to communicate with the campus. That message of April 4, 2002, acknowledged that:
"As a nation and as individuals, we are now facing times that are in some ways more difficult and more dangerous than the aftermath of September 11th. … After September 11, as members of the campus community we found unity relatively easily….Now, however, we are being more severely tested. As we wrestle with the passionate emotions and strongly opposing world views the Middle Eastern situation arouses, I hope that we will work consciously to speak and act in a way that recognizes the humanity of all members of our community, that sees individuals, not enemies."
Two troubling incidents marred the spring after that point. One, the May 7 rally, I have already mentioned. It was large and vocal, with some unacceptable verbal exchanges and the desecration of the Israeli flag, and, unfortunately, it became an international news story -- often exaggerated in the retelling -- as a result of an e-mail message sent by a distressed faculty member to a number of friends and colleagues and spread exponentially via the power of the Internet. The other incident was the circulation some weeks before the rally of a flier that included a small segment suggesting the ancient "blood libel" against Jews.
Our response to the "blood libel" on the flier was immediate and strong. Any fliers that had been posted were removed by University staff and by students from the group involved, who had been made to recognize its absolute unacceptability. I wrote strong letters of reproof to each student group whose name appeared on the flier (though several had never even seen it before publication). The group chiefly involved, the Muslim Student Association, wrote a fine letter of apology in response. We investigated thoroughly to determine whether any University funds, even student association fees, had been used to print the flier. We have determined that notwithstanding the student government listing on the flier, no University funds of any sort had paid for it. This is significant information and we have shared it widely.
In the wake of the May 7 rally, we set out to deal with both the issues and the opportunities emerging from that event and its aftermath. The result is a university-wide, comprehensive plan, announced to the campus and community on June 21, 2002, that includes both short- and long-term responses to the issues of campus climate, free speech, hate speech, and civility that came to the fore on May 7.
Highlights of our response include creation of the President's Task Force on Inter-group Relations: Initial Focus on the Effect of Middle East Issues on Campus Life, a campus-community group that will make its first recommendations to me by August 1; development of academic programs and special events for a semester devoted to civil discourse; a major retreat for student leaders early in the semester, and the resolution of student discipline issues involving the two student groups involved in the rally.
The complete plan includes:
We are using the full power of the Web to communicate with our campus, our immediate community, and the global community that has followed recent events at SFSU. As we did last September, we have established a Web site on which we are posting every unfolding aspect of our ongoing response. The site includes a summary of events; the comprehensive response; messages to the campus, and updated information about actions and events. Once the "Semester on Constructive Civil Discourse" gets under way, those interested in learning about or taking part in it can turn first to the Web site. Over the last several months, I have received several thousand e-mail messages from concerned individuals around the world. Our response to them includes a request that they continue to check the Web site in the months ahead for updated information on our progress in this difficult, vital work. We have given that Web site, "SFSU's Response to Pro-Israel -- Pro-Palestine Tensions on Campus," a conspicuous link from the University's home page. It can also be reached directly at: www.sfsu.edu/~news/sfsuresp.htm. You may wish to forward to the Governor some of the material posted on that site. Accordingly, enclosed are the events summary, material about and from the Task Force, material concerning the cases the University sent forward to the San Francisco District Attorney's and that office's disposition of them, and examples of my campus messages.
Our joint efforts with UC Berkeley are moving forward. In addition to my conversation with Chancellor Berdahl, our vice president for University Advancement has met with the UCB response team that is addressing Jewish-Palestinian tensions on that campus, and our two campus teams will be meeting on August 13 to plan a mutual action agenda.
In summary, at San Francisco State, we are seeking to make a "teachable moment" out of these recent incidents. I have been deeply pleased by the tremendous, positive response from faculty, administrators, students, and staff, who have echoed our aspirations, offered fine suggestions, and expressed their willingness to take an active part in developing events, classes and the like that will build understanding and diminish intolerance. As I wrote in releasing the comprehensive plan: "We are using all our resources as a university to make the recent tensions, which echo so painfully the whole Middle East situation, an occasion for learning and growth. We believe firmly that the skills and habits of open, yet civil, dissent can be modeled and taught. I can think of no more critical work for us to do."
I will continue to keep you closely informed in the months ahead, as the Semester on Constructive Civil Discourse comes to life and the Task Force continues with its work and recommendations.
1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132 (415) 338-1111