President Kaler's remarks to the 10th annual Equity and Diversity Breakfast: "Harness the spirit in this room to do better"

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Good morning everyone, thank you Interim Vice President Goh, and thank you for your leadership of OED.

We’ve gathered once more to celebrate our engagement with and commitment to, equity, diversity, and inclusion. At the same time, in these troubling times, I also feel a need to use these moments together to contemplate our concerns, and address our challenges.

But, because it’s so early in the morning, first, let’s celebrate!

For example … let’s celebrate the 20th year of the Josie Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award to be given today. But, more importantly, let’s celebrate the 87th year in the wonderful and powerful life of Regent Emerita Johnson, and she is with us today! Josie, you are a true gem of our state and our University.
There is a lot to positively highlight on all of our campuses over the past year. I'm just going to give you a few examples.

Our efforts to increase the number of students of color and American Indian students pursuing science, technology, engineering and math degrees and careers received a boost. The University was rewarded by the National Science Foundation with a renewed grant of nearly $4 million to support our North Star STEM Alliance and build the career pipeline our state so desperately needs.

Our Twin Cities and Morris campuses were again ranked as two of the best in the nation for LGBTQIA students.

We’ve strengthened our efforts on Campus Climate by recently appointing Ann Freeman to be our full-time Director of Campus Climate Initiatives, and she’ll establish a collaborative model for  advancing this important work. 

The University was named the 2017 Corporation of the Year by the North Central Minority Supplier Development Council for dramatically increasing contracts with businesses owned by women, minority and disabled suppliers. And I see that Darryl Peale, the leader of those efforts, is with us today.

Our Bias Response and Referral Network is active, and has been praised by outside observers as a national model. Our Immigration Response Team was launched in the face of changing immigration and refugee regulations and has become an active and reliable resource for students, faculty and staff alike. I — along with many state-wide business leaders, and dare I say just about everyone in this room — have spoken out about the need to protect DACA and our undocumented students.

And, finally, we have some victories very close to home to celebrate. First, our Humphrey School alum, Melvin Carter, was elected as the first African-American mayor of the city of St. Paul. And the Transgender Oral Historian of our Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies — Andrea Jenkins — became the first openly transgender African-American woman elected to office in the United States and is the new City Council member from Ward 8 in Minneapolis. So, lots to be proud of. 

But, even as we honor our winners today, we face many challenges on the road to real equity, diversity and inclusion on all of our campuses. At this University and in Minnesota’s business community in general, attracting — and more importantly — retaining employees and leaders of color has been a challenge. We need to do better, and I’m committed to that.

While we announced last week the details around required training for everyone across our system to prevent the scourge of sexual assault, harassment and stalking on our campuses, we must undergo an extensive public health-driven culture change. We have to keep our classrooms, residence halls, and work places on campus safe for us all, but, particularly, for women and members of our GLBTQIA community who, the statistics show, are too often victims.

Meanwhile, I know there are still many members of our community — because of their identity, their color, or their religion — who feel that our campuses need to be more welcoming and more respectful of them. Our Campus Climate efforts, under Ann’s leadership, must continue to improve, and they will.

And let me turn to another issue that addresses inclusion. That’s freedom of speech and free expression. There’s currently at the Andersen Library on the West Bank a powerful exhibit called, “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism, and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-1942.”  It will be in place until the end of the month, and I urge you to see it. 

Good scholarship uncovered that some University administrators back then were bent on identifying those who were different from the majority, of literally spying on them, and creating a chilling effect on their ideas and their actions. The targets were, mostly, African-American and Jewish student activists, but also those with left-of-center political leanings. It also documented efforts by University presidents to keep some of our residence halls racially segregated. This was an extremely troubling and painful period in our history and, earlier this fall, I asked CLA Dean John Coleman to lead an effort to guide our community’s thinking on how University history shapes us and how we can shape it.

And just last week I attended a Summit on Civil Rights organized by our Law School. In listening to South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, I was reminded of the words from George Santayana, “If we fail to learn the lessons of our history, we’re bound to repeat them.’’ A lot of us have learned history, but I question whether all of us have learned the lessons of that history.

Which leads us to today and the political divisiveness that is gripping our country, and that is felt on our campuses. Some students on both sides of the political spectrum feel unwelcomed, and even unsafe. In this atmosphere, our right to free expression is being challenged. 

In my view, speech that is hateful and hurtful must be addressed with more speech, and with dialog toward respect and inclusiveness. Now, certainly, when it comes to the extremists – the Nazis, the white supremacists, the misogynists, the anti-Semites, Islamaphobes, and homo- and transphobes ‑ I reject their venom. I condemn their hate. I denounce their Swastikas on our campuses.

But, as President of this University, I do not want to be part of a historic exhibit in 80 years that addresses a period of this University’s history when we stopped a range of political speech.

I do not want to be identified as a University leader who targeted a group of students because of their ideas and beliefs.  We’re better than that, as our leaders should have been in the 1930s and 40s, when students could be expelled and faculty could be suspended merely because of what they thought, let alone what they said.

If we are to be equitable, diverse and inclusive, then we have to work to be just that. If student groups want to invite speakers to campus — even if it’s sometimes just to provoke others or put this administration or me on the spot — I might not like it and you might not like it, but it is allowed. 

I assure you, safety is our most important concern here.

If, when a speaker comes – be they right wing or left wing –  you want to protest outside of the building, write Op-eds or Tweets, go for it. But do it legally, safely and respectfully. An academic institution is not a place to shout down speakers.

As Supreme Court Justice Brandeis wrote 90 years ago about free speech, and I quote, in part: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” Because remember, as the “Campus Divided” exhibit suggests:  You could be the next person whose ideas are prohibited and whose speech is silenced.
In closing, please look around at the diversity of the folks at your table, in this room, among our award winners. We at the University of Minnesota pride ourselves on being a convener for this state, bringing people together for the common good, and tackling grand challenges head on. Achieving real equity, diversity and inclusion is a monumental challenge that requires hard work.

But if all of us can harness the spirit in this room, then we can move forward, making real changes in our institutions, in our communities, in our relationships, and in ourselves . . . to do better. That’s my hope on this important day of contemplation and celebration. Thank you.