November 14, 2016
Dear UT Community,
I would like to address a topic I know is on everyone’s minds — last week’s election, and the university’s efforts to support students, faculty and staff members of all political affiliations who are reacting to the election in a range of ways. Since the election, my leadership team has had extensive discussions about our efforts as a campus community.
The results of the election took many across the country, including on campus, by surprise. While many are celebrating the outcome, others are profoundly disturbed by it. Some heard the rhetoric of the campaign and fear they could be targeted because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
Several hundred students joined with others to protest the results last week on campus before heading to the Capitol and downtown, as happened in a number of cities across the country. Many more are quietly concerned about how they fit in and where they belong in our diverse university.
The Campus Climate Response team received multiple complaints about allegedly threatening signs and comments. We take these reports seriously and are responding to them.
We are also watching the national events closely — including allegations of students at other universities being targeted. Such actions are intolerable, and we will do everything we can as a university to support any members of the UT community who feel they are being targeted.
The university is already developing new policies to respond to bias incidents, and we will have a proposal to share with the campus for feedback soon. Already this year the university has taken several initial steps to facilitate a faster institutional response to bias incidents.
As we develop these policies, we remain firmly committed to promoting free speech and academic freedom. Our policies and responses will not be aimed at the words people use, but the actions they may take. We also recognize, though, that some speech is hurtful, and that recognition needs to inform us as we pursue our educational mission and our commitment to diversity and inclusion.
As a rule, the president of UT should never comment on candidates or election results. As a state institution, we must stay out of politics. And as a campus that encourages the exchange of ideas, administrators should never suggest one political party or candidate is right and others wrong. UT has great supporters both at the state Capitol and in Washington, D.C., who come from all political views.
But I do have a responsibility to reach out to our community when so many members are hurting and feel threatened.
So I want to reiterate that one of our prime responsibilities at UT is to foster an inclusive campus culture in which all voices are heard and valued and where we treat different ideas and different people with respect. This is true for those who may feel threatened because of campaign rhetoric — and is also true for those who are uncomfortable because they supported a candidate who is unpopular with others on campus.
To that end, Dr. Soncia Reagins-Lilly, the vice president for student affairs, will be extending her office hours, and she is coordinating with student leaders and faculty partners to host a wall at the Student Activity Center on which community members can share their emotions by posting notes. All are welcome, beginning Wednesday morning.
Provost Maurie McInnis and I are listening to and learning from faculty members about the conversations occurring in classrooms and how they are responding.
The university is also taking the usual steps we would take to prepare for a transition in the federal government: analyzing the higher education priorities of the incoming administration and what it might mean for financial aid, research funding, Title IX, immigration and other issues.
As educators, university faculty members have an important role at moments such as this — moments of great national significance. The faculty are teaching and working with our students every day, guiding discussion and debate in a responsible and respectful manner in which all points of view are considered and the educational environment supports our students.
I ask that you all work with me in setting this tone; in showing respect for one another; and letting our students, staff and faculty members know about the resources and counseling available for anyone who feels vulnerable.
Gregory L. Fenves