A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
May 13, 2010 Volume 40 / Number 6

 

From the President's Desk

Defining Ourselves

This spring, the University witnessed some distressing events that have raised serious questions about campus safety and climate.

On Cesar Chavez Day, we saw many of our students parading around the campus flaunting alleged stereotypical Mexican dress and throwing down tequila shots eagerly provided by some of the neighborhood bars which opened early in the morning to encourage their drinking. The local media portrayed the University’s celebration of the memory of Chavez’ life and good works as an occasion for drunkenness and police arrests.

The Associated Students election was marred by the defacing of some of the campaign materials of one of the candidates, a Palestinian. His face was covered with a black “X” and a derogatory racial term was scrawled across the posters.

And, then, the current AS president was brutally assaulted while walking home late at night by a knife-wielding assailant who punctuated the attack with a string of racial slurs directed at the victim.

These events have been difficult for our community to experience, and perhaps even harder to understand. Although these events are apparently unconnected, they have raised questions about the relationship between race and violence, between insensitivity and intolerance, and have many of us wondering whether we are facing something especially ominous and ugly in our community. We acknowledge the existence of racist, sexist, and homophobic elements in our community, but we want to believe that these incidents, or any other expression of hate or malice, are exceptions to our identity, not the rule.

What is clear, though, is that our University and city communities responded quickly to these events, condemning them and affirming that we would not be defined by them. Students of color, especially, led this effort, culminating in a rally for the values that should connect and unite us, rather than simply railing against the behaviors and attitudes that can divide and anger us.

The message was the right one. Yes, we are angry and hurt. And we should be. But we should not be consumed or captured by the anger we feel. We should not be deterred or distracted from the task of community building by the hurt we feel.

We need to respond coolly and clearly, and therefore, effectively. We need to demonstrate reason and resolve and to move forward with unambiguous messages about our expectations for all those who live, work, study and visit here.

One of these responses is the newly announced diversity action plan, which I commissioned a group of our colleagues to develop about a year ago. We now have the draft of their work, and it is available for comment and feedback at the Office of Diversity Web site. The title of this plan is “To Form a More Inclusive Learning Community,” and it reflects one of the key statements in the University’s Strategic Plan, namely, “we pursue diversity not just as an idea to embrace, but as a community to form.”

The arrival of this plan could not be more timely given this spring’s unsettling events.

There is much to like in the plan, even as a draft, and I look forward to talking about it as the University moves towards its adoption and implementation. But there is an aspect of the report that is particularly germane to how our campus is responding to the events that have keyed this column: it is a profoundly optimistic and uplifting report.

It eschews rhetoric and speaks to the values that enable us to succeed as a learning community. Most assuredly, these include reason and respect: the former compelling us to face prejudice and to reveal its flawed bases, the latter emphasizing the dignity of all persons and the importance of civil discourse on even the most difficult matters.

Yes, race, class, and gender issues are among the most divisive and contentious in our society. But they cannot be resolved through drive-by debates characterized by screaming and loathing or a hyper-partisan political prism where scoring points with one’s narrow political base is more important than solving problems through compromise and dialogue.

The message in the diversity plan, as it was at the student-organized rally for respect and tolerance, is that we can choose the kind of community we wish to be—and that we must build it together. This is a message of shared responsibility and destiny.

It is an invitation to be engaged in an effort to strengthen our identity and performance as a vital and esteemed learning community. I look forward to the conversations we will have, and the actions we will take, to achieve further the goals of distinction and inclusivity for our University.

Paul J. Zingg, President