San Francisco State University is again at the center of a national discussion about the boundaries and consequences of freedom of expression, this time brought about because two faculty members have invited Leila Khaled to participate in a virtual class discussion.
Let me be clear: I condemn the glorification of terrorism and use of violence against unarmed civilians. I strongly condemn antisemitism and other hateful ideologies that marginalize people based on their identities, origins or beliefs.
At the same time, I represent a public university, which is committed to academic freedom and the ability of faculty to conduct their teaching and scholarship without censorship.
Embracing these core principles — freedom of expression, freedom from censorship and a university as an inclusive and welcoming environment — serves as the foundation of a strong higher education that develops critical thinking; they need not be mutually exclusive.
Embracing hard-to-reconcile complexities and rejecting binary thinking are the hallmarks of a quality educational experience.
Justice Louis Brandeis famously asserted that the response to falsehoods or ill-conceived ideas is not censorship, but rather “to avert the evil by the processes of education.” He noted that “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Our university is among the most diverse in the nation, where students frequently encounter divergent viewpoints and world views, which plays an essential role in the development of the burgeoning minds of our students. It is our obligation to utilize moments such as these to heap on more learning, engage in more debate, and challenge viewpoints and assumptions.
Rather than stifle speech, we must encourage robust questioning and dissent, and ensure that our students and faculty are free from retaliation or censorship for doing so.
My conversations with SF Hillel and Jewish student leaders have enhanced my appreciation for the deeply painful impact of this upcoming presenter, as well as past campus experiences. I understand that Zionism is an important part of the identity of many of our Jewish students. The university welcomes Jewish faculty and students expressing their beliefs and worldviews in the classroom and on the quad, through formal and informal programming.
As stated in this letter by Jewish student leaders at SF Hillel to the university, the university has committed to partnering with student leaders to ensure their right to freedom of expression and to promote viewpoint diversity. The SFSU Division of Equity and Community Inclusion has allocated funds to host speakers with diverse points of view.
Our recently formed Bias Incident Education Team joins our Office of Equity Programs and Compliance to strengthen our work in tracking and addressing bias incidents. The university is providing, and will continue to provide, staff training on rising rates of antisemitism and the intersection with anti-Zionism, and — moreover — we will maintain strong and open lines of communication with our community as we respond to divisive events.
While we undertake these important efforts to create safety and inclusion, the university will not enforce silence — even when speech is abhorrent.
What sets a university apart from primary or secondary education is that the views of our faculty are not prescribed, curtailed or made to conform to content standards. This is the time in a student’s education when exposure to the views of their academic instructors challenges their intellectual capacity and brings about greater intellectual rigor. For San Francisco State, protecting viewpoint diversity enables our important mission of delivering higher education.
We must couple our collective commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression with a collective commitment to being a welcoming and inclusive campus. We condemn ideologies of hatred and violence. We do this not by restricting protected speech, teaching or scholarship, but by providing resources for those in need of support and, again, by facilitating educational opportunities that promote viewpoint diversity.
At my first SFSU Fall Convocation last year, I talked about engaging in courageous conversations. There are no harder conversations than those centered on volatile political and cultural issues.
My goals remain unchanged.
We will have these conversations. We will encourage diverse viewpoints. We will demonstrate compassion. But I am also a realist and a historian. There will be times when conversation, let alone agreement, is impossible. There will be times when people find a course’s content or a speaker deeply offensive.
I have urged the university community to use these moments as opportunities to invite others to share their thoughts, ideas and words. I urge all to see these moments not as evidence of permanent or widespread disagreement. We should not allow ourselves to be defined by the moments that divide us but by the opportunities to come together for the kinds of rich courageous conversations that only one of the most diverse universities in the world can foster.