Respectful Debate and the Standards of a Great University

Campus Climate

Chancellor Block reminds all Bruins of their responsibility to always engage in thoughtful, intelligent and reasoned debates.

As the events in Baltimore have once again made clear, our nation is in the midst of an urgent discussion on the proper use of police force and especially its impact on communities of color. Last week, flyers that mocked the concerns underlying this debate were put up in several campus locations, including the Kerckhoff Hall office of the Afrikan Student Union. This week, in a similar display, stickers with messages critical of undocumented immigrants were posted in several locations. We don’t know who was responsible. We do know that these statements were hurtful and that they cheapened the discourse on these important issues.

While bumper stickers, slogans and provocative images may be constitutionally protected, they are not necessarily appropriate, deep or nuanced ways of communicating. More to the point, in these cases, they seem less intended to debate issues than to demean others. These issues are not just abstract policy questions; they are, at their heart, very real concerns that evoke fears and even pain. These matters directly affect the lives of many people in our community. These flyers and stickers were dismissive of that important fact.

We must do better. We are Bruins, and we have both the ability and the responsibility to be more thoughtful, more caring, smarter and more reasoned in our debates than those who posted these messages. Members of any community inevitably disagree on important issues – that’s a sign of vitality. But disagreeing respectfully is a sign of maturity and, indeed, wisdom.

Regrettably, no large institution is immune from such incidents. But we must not let belligerence define or damage our community. We must continue to find ways to work together and drive the conversation in productive ways. And we should be encouraged by the fact that many of us have done exactly that.

Students, faculty, staff and alumni came together in a national search that culminated in the recent appointment of Jerry Kang, a respected scholar on implicit bias, as our new vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion. We have hired discrimination prevention officers and appointed departmental equity advisors. After decades of hard work and activism by students and faculty, we have also adopted a diversity requirement for undergraduate students in the UCLA College. All of this and more will help create an infrastructure that better enables us to address difficult issues that not only challenge this campus, but have long challenged our nation.

While these steps will be helpful, and violations of our code of conduct or of the physical safety of our community will not be tolerated, the fact remains that no order from the chancellor or policy from the Academic Senate can mandate the compassion necessary to care about others or the humility necessary to hear their voices. Doing so is a commitment each of us must make.

I want to emphasize the appeal made by Janina Montero, vice chancellor of student affairs, in Wednesday’s Daily Bruin, and ask all in our campus community to remember that regardless of our politics or backgrounds, we are at our best when we acknowledge the humanity of others, appreciate diverse viewpoints and respond with empathy. I ask all of us to remember that good ideas, not insults, are the standard of a great university.

  • Gene D. BlockChancellor