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Academic Senate Chair: 'Resolve and action are required'


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May 14, 2002

The following report was presented by outgoing Chair Pamela Vaughn to the SFSU Academic Senate on May 14, 2002.

I had intended to entertain you with a breezy little speech about the challenges -- and joys -- of sitting in the front of the room and some lighthearted comments about "senate chairdom" in general. But I feel now that a speech of that nature would be self-indulgent and inappropriate. What follows may seem equally self-indulgent, but it addresses larger issues of concern to our campus, so I hope that you will indulge me.

The last several months have been a challenge for us all. We, as a senate, began the academic year with a resolution that, among other things related to the aftermath of September 11, condemned "responses stigmatizing members of any religious, ethnic, racial, or national group." Resolutions, however, are not enough; resolve and action are required. Over the last months we have seen an increase in intemperate language, in acts of intimidation, from far too many quarters -- and not all of these acts are related to political events.

Given my academic discipline and my general disposition, it will come as no surprise that at times like this I frequently seek refuge in the classics -- particularly Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. It has often been alleged that the Romans didn't "do" philosophy -- but it is actually the case that they expected their philosophy to be practical, to help them in their everyday life. And for the Roman leaders, in particular, that meant a philosophy that encouraged participation in the larger community, that was involved and participatory, that allowed them to speak of the greater good and service to the community. That is a major reason why Stoic philosophy found a home in ancient Rome.

It is that sense of community, that sense of connection to a larger whole that drives our three senate resolutions today. They all speak to the larger issue of the significance of education and its role in transforming lives and our obligation to uphold fundamental concepts in the education process: the free and open exchange of ideas, critical thought and analysis, and civil disputation. The challenge for us in and out of our classrooms is to move ourselves and our students away from slogans and propaganda into a respectful discussion of ideas and principles -- and that is no small challenge. Deep convictions and sincere emotions cloud our thinking, and yet we must persevere -- the academic venue may be our last best hope for the resolution of the many problems facing our world.

I am reminded of what the late Joseph Campbell said in meditating on the crisis in Lebanon in the last century -- that it was one of the great tragedies of the world, having three great religions fight over a "metaphor." Campbell, of course, was one of the great interpreters of mythology in the 20th century; he saw each religion as an attempt to define a path to a single indivisible truth, and therefore titles of religions were simply markers for different pathways to the same goal. But when we become wrapped in the metaphor, when we are blinded to the possibility that a single truth may entertain more than one avenue to its realization, then we are doomed. The same, I think, can be said of peace, if we accept peace as a "truth" to be attained. We must be open to the possibility that there is more than one valid path to peace; if we accept only one path as the "true path," then we will indeed become lost.

There are no doubt some who will feel that today's new resolution before you is no more than a "knee jerk" response to events of last week. To some extent, that is true -- if the demonstrations last week had not occurred, we might not feel compelled to state our resolve today. But, just as last September was the impetus for reaffirming our values as a university and condemning the unwarranted profiling of any group, so too the demonstrations of May 7 have provided the impetus for our reaffirmation of the university's principles and our condemnation of acts or words of hate.

Finally, it is incumbent upon us, as faculty leaders, to take a stand, to contribute in a positive way to actions and words that foster civil discourse and critical debate, to reject intimidation in all forms -- whether in the political arena, the classroom, the administrative office, or our own faculty meetings; to temper emotional and hyperbolic statements with reasoned judgment and analysis; and to encourage communication and constructive engagement. We need to recommit ourselves to this every day -- whether we are sitting in the front or the back of this room. Thank you.

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Last modified May 14, 2002, by the Office of Public Affairs