WE HAD A CHOICE at Westfield State University.
After two students of color were targeted with hateful messages on their dorm room door, we could have simply sought to support and comfort the affected students and issue a statement about the abhorrent nature of these actions, while calling on our campus community for greater civility.
The alternative was to take complete ownership of the intolerance that we now know is alive and well on our campus, as it is on many others, and to take a stand and make it clear that we must change. That we must fully and wholeheartedly reject racism, despite the headwinds whipped up by anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from our nation’s capital and from the White House itself. That our entire leadership team must internalize these attacks on students of color and commit itself to creating change.
We chose the latter. The near term may be harder; it may create more pain and discomfort than would otherwise be the case. It might lead to a back-and-forth in loud, sharply contrasting tones. It may even generate concern among our stakeholders and lead to some unwanted headlines in the media.
We will, however, emerge a stronger, more compassionate, more empathic institution as a result of this decision, one completely in line with the vision of our founder, Horace Mann, who created this school as the first public, co-ed college in America to offer an education without barrier to race, creed, or economic status.
College campuses are designed for free, open discourse. They are a place where people go to stretch their minds, explore new ideas, challenge their own thinking, and be stimulated. Students come in electing business management as a major and graduate with a degree in biology, because their thinking and passions evolve on campus.
That is why hateful messages that reflect a closed mind, a singular perspective, are so damaging. They tell us that we are failing at our mission. There is little comfort in the fact that we are far from alone in dealing with this.
Hate messages undermine the mission of higher education as well as its legacy of creating opportunity for individuals who may not be part of the mainstream. I look at my own history. I left a poor village in Brazil at age 17 to become a migrant worker in the state of Washington, knowing very little English.
Education was my only ticket out. It ignited my passion and sustained my desire for a better life.
It is my own history, I believe, that helps me empathize and better understand the plight of the students who have received these taunts, and that fuels my conviction that we must do our very best on campus to holistically address racism and intolerance; to be agents of social change.
We do not know yet, both literally and figuratively, where the hatred comes from. That is to say that we have an active investigation underway but have not yet identified the source of the messages. More to the point, however, we do not know what is driving the hatred. Is it somebody emboldened by the rhetoric in Washington? Is it motivated by white supremacist protests in Charlottesville and other places across the country?
Whoever and whatever the source, we must take a stand. Not just because racism is wrong and undermines the sanctity of any community, leaving people vulnerable and hurt, but because our nation’s educational institutions must be at the vanguard of taking on this issue for society.
We are expected to be the enlightened communities, with the academic capacity and diverse bases that can foster such a discussion. Some will reject this role for America’s colleges and universities; they will point to institutions where they believe the “PC movement” has run amok and they will distrust the work that we can do to advance the dialogue.
The worlds of business, government, and even professional sports may not be well-equipped for convening the parties and building a more inclusive national culture. But the colleges and universities are. As microcosms of the broader society, we can create diverse environments that can serve as a model for corporations, government agencies, and social and fraternal organizations.
Creating an arena for this discourse is what colleges and universities do best. It is what we plan to continue to do at Westfield State.
Ramon S. Torrecilha is the president of Westfield State University.