March 8, 2017
Dear UT Community,
Standing in front of the Main Building, you can read words etched in granite and limestone that represent the highest ideals of The University of Texas. Words like truth, leadership and freedom. These words are eternal. They define us.
Elsewhere on our campus you can read many temporary fliers and posters. Some advertise performances and meetings, while others promote thoughts and ideas. They represent a specific place and time. They are ephemeral.
Last week, an organization unaffiliated with UT posted signs that directly targeted immigrants and minorities. The words and ideas contained within these posters were hateful, divisive and deeply offensive to me and to many members of our community. Their message runs counter to the values of our university and our commitment to diversity and inclusion.
The nation and world have seen an increase in emotional — and too often ugly and contentious — discussions about immigration, race, religion and gender-identity. The discourse has frequently been most vigorous on university campuses, where students, faculty members and staff members of diverse backgrounds come together in the pursuit of knowledge.
The difficult discussions we are having at UT and throughout society raise important questions about free speech that are challenging to answer. Free speech is critical to the exchange of ideas that must happen at a university. We don't learn by quieting voices. We learn by listening to one another and, when we disagree, by engaging in thoughtful dialogue. Protecting free speech means protecting the rights of every perspective, even if that perspective is objectionable.
Sometimes, our collective dialogue has its limits, especially when it involves outside groups. Posters from non-UT organizations, including the ones we saw last week, are not allowed under our rules and will be taken down. They have no place on the Forty Acres. As a university community, it is up to all of us to define a culture that protects the right to free speech and supports our right to learn, teach and work in an inclusive environment.
The best response to offensive speech is enlightened dialogue. So, we will hold a town hall meeting at 2 p.m. on Wednesday in the ballroom at the Student Activity Center to discuss the climate at UT and the issues impacting our community. All students, faculty members and staff members are invited. Gregory Vincent, vice president for diversity and community engagement; Soncia Reagins-Lilly, vice president for student affairs and dean of students; Maurie McInnis, provost; and I will be there to listen to you, to share our thoughts and respond to your questions.
We cannot ignore hate. We cannot ignore our differences. But we can speak to one another. We can listen to one another. We can improve.
I'll see (and hear) you on Wednesday.
Gregory L. Fenves