S.F. State and a teachable moment

The phrase “teachable moment” is quite meaningful for the university and my leadership team following an April 6 Hillel event featuring Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on our campus.

I regret that the student event was disrupted by a group of protesters. We care deeply about teaching and learning, and we take pride in linking learning with action. We must learn and be better. Going forward, I am empowering my administration to take more swift and decisive action when faced with similar circumstances. We will not allow another speaker to be drowned out and shouted down.

In a discussion with Mayor Barkat, by phone, I apologized and invited him back to S.F. State so that we might learn more about the complex and challenging issues he faces as mayor on a daily basis. He accepted my apology and invitation, the timing of which will depend on his next trip to the U.S.

I have spent considerable time thinking about the event and what it means for the future of our university. University campuses are not quiet spaces, and I would argue that they shouldn’t be. But the noise should come from sessions where tough and difficult ideas are confronted in a spirit of learning and respect. Bullhorns don’t do it, and the idea of silencing and preventing the marketplace of ideas is both sad and disturbing.

I am clear in my conversations with our Jewish students that they are welcome here, that we will work hard to ensure S.F. State is a safe space and that we will be proud of them when they graduate. This will be a strong and consistent message to any student — we must be a campus where all students, regardless of their backgrounds, feel welcome and supported.

When I spoke with our Jewish students I heard repeated concerns about the climate on our campus. Their experiences, and the experiences of other student groups, reveal a large gap between S.F. State’s institutional values and the lived experiences of many of our students. One cannot learn in the context of fear, nor can learning prosper without exposure to the world of ideas. The Hillel event signaled that we have much to learn in this regard. But we will get better. I am committed to that goal.

Social justice isn’t just a phrase we use to describe our behavior and attitudes. It is a standard, a critical value that is intimately connected to academic freedom, First Amendment obligations and a commitment to student learning in a safe and respectful context. The conflicts that have arisen on our campus are an extension of conflicts that exist in the larger world. Many have been around for decades. We may not be able to directly impact the tone of the larger conflicts, but we can address how we treat one another and how these conflicts play out in our small corner of the world.

The most problematic issue from my vantage point as president is the perception that speech is not valued or protected at S.F. State. We need to do more to show that the perception is not reality. To that end, and to better prepare for the future, we are taking a number of important actions immediately:

We are conducting a full investigation of the incident, and the students who disrupted the event have been notified that the incident will be adjudicated through the student conduct process; consequences will be meted out commensurate with findings.

We will adopt a more assertive stance when enforcing S.F. State’s Time, Place and Manner Policy while preserving the rights of individuals to engage in free speech. Failure to comply with directives of university officials may result in disciplinary action under the Standards for Student Conduct; the university is also willing to take immediate action in accordance with California Penal Code Section 403 PC.

We will also pursue the following longer-term actions:

The Time, Place and Manner Policy will be reviewed and revised, and a standard operating procedures manual developed in support of the policy.

New student orientation will include information on the Time, Place and Manner Policy as well as the First Amendment, so that students are fully informed about their rights and responsibilities around civil discourse.

Training for administrators and student leaders will be implemented in August 2016.

We will provide education and capacity building for S.F. State students to advance a climate of equity and inclusion, engage in civil discourse and respectful cross-cultural dialogue.

The S.F. State community has a reputation for speaking its mind quite openly, and often loudly. But true dialogue means more than being louder and faster to speak. My favorite phrase to tell students is “you are here so that you can learn how to own your own mind.” And that means more than listening to and supporting ideas that you feel good about or those that are comfortable and easy.

Owning your own mind is difficult work; it means engaging with challenging and often threatening ideas. This is not always easy, but if teaching and learning are important, then listening to and engaging with the controversial is an essential element of an education.

At S.F. State, we recognize that we will all need to continually work together to create and foster a campus environment where reason and mutual respect among individuals and groups guide our expression and interaction.

Les Wong

Les Wong is the president of San Francisco State University.