January 29 -- Civil Discourse 101

[This message was sent to the University community at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.]

This is a time for reflection. Actions and words of some of the members of the University of Illinois have brought disgrace to the institution. The response to an operational decision that kept the Urbana campus open during this week’s cold wave has brought unflattering and unwelcome attention to the University of Illinois. Thoughtless, mean-spirited, racist, and sexist comments by a handful in our community have put our University in the national spotlight for the worst possible reasons.

Some might argue that the broad support that poured in after those hateful remarks were posted shows that online communication is self-policing and therefore no more needs to be said.

But as an institution of higher education, we have the opportunity -- and the obligation -- to use this unfortunate series of events as a “teachable” moment. No one is entitled to go to the University of Illinois. Every student should think of it as a privilege. The reason students are admitted is because we think they have the potential to contribute to our efforts to mold citizens for our state and our country. We live in a multicultural democracy, and our first objective is not simply to produce great engineers, thoughtful philosophers, or great artists, but rather citizens for our country. We have failed in that effort if we produce students who think that the strongest form of argument is a personal attack.

We embrace an open dialogue; in fact, we created structures to support it—faculty Senates, student governments, and public comment periods at every Board of Trustees meeting. The University is about dialogue and discourse. At the University, the ability to question and disagree with decisions is an accepted right. However, the quality of that discourse is diminished by personal attacks, sexist statements, or racist comments. These have no place in our community.

Civil discourse may be defined in many different ways, but we paraphrase the 17th century philosopher John Locke in saying that it means communicating thoughts and ideas by words which support the common good. Our expectation for our University community is that we all engage in civil discourse in our treatment of others.

It is not only what is right. It is what the world expects of the University of Illinois.

Christopher G. Kennedy
Chairman, University of Illinois Board of Trustees

Robert A. Easter
President, University of Illinois