Moving Forward Together: Letter from President Ad Interim Ken Freeman

January 18, 2024

Dear Members of the Boston University Community:

We begin the spring semester excited about the opportunities in front of us while also reflecting on the lessons learned from the challenges our community has faced. Toward that end, it is important for us to redouble our efforts to ensure a safe, secure, and inclusive campus where each individual is treated with dignity, fairness, and respect.

The brutal terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war against Hamas have led to a tremendous loss of life and the ongoing hostage and humanitarian crises in Gaza. It is likely that the Israel-Hamas war will continue for some time and will cause elevated stress and significant discomfort for many Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and other concerned members of our community, some of whom have family members directly and indirectly impacted by the conflict.

During the fall semester, I met on multiple occasions with groups of students and others to listen to concerns and respond to specific issues that were raised. Sentiments of uncertainty, insecurity, fear, and anxiety were ever present.

Passionately held views about the conflict have been manifested in various forms on campus, including peaceful vigils and demonstrations, letter writing and leafletting, and, regrettably, occasional actions that violate our policies or the law.

Our goal, above all else, continues to be ensuring that our campus and community remain safe and that we—together—maintain an environment in which there can be spirited advocacy, debate, and discussion that is civil, informed, and rooted in the shared acknowledgment of our common humanity.

At various meetings and forums over the past few months, I presented a set of core principles for our community as guideposts and standards for our actions and interactions.

Boston University:

  • Condemns terrorism and other acts that harm innocent people
  • Will not tolerate violence, threats directed at individuals, or speech that rises to the level of discriminatory harassment
  • Takes all possible measures to keep our campus safe for everyone
  • Encourages respectful dialogue and the free exchange of ideas and experiences
  • Strives to treat each other, regardless of perspective, with dignity, fairness, and respect, without exception

These principles inform and do not replace Boston University’s Statement on Free Speech and Expression, which recognizes that the freedom to pursue lines of inquiry and express views without fear is a cornerstone of a great research university. The statement, approved by the Board of Trustees in 2020, voices the University’s adherence to “the guiding principle that the remedy for speech that some may find hurtful, offensive, or even hateful is not suppression of speech, but more speech.” However, the broad speech protections that are essential for academic inquiry or the healthy functioning of a democracy implicitly carry with them a responsibility for each of us to exercise that freedom thoughtfully and with the clear recognition that intemperate or hateful speech can have deeply harmful consequences for other members of our community.

While members of our community have generally expressed their deeply held views on the conflict in the Middle East within permissible boundaries, our campus has been marred by graffiti on a house of worship that is being investigated as a potential hate crime by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as well as other graffiti-based vandalism, and we remain vigilant to identify any other conduct or actions that fall under our disciplinary code. Instances of doxing have also taken place, a particularly pernicious and ugly phenomenon that shatters the privacy and security of members of our community. Doxing is of particular concern, as it serves to replace dialogue and civility with shame and intimidation.

Be assured that the University will diligently follow up on any reports of impermissible actions and will initiate judicial processes or criminal complaints as appropriate for the particular instance. It is important that we rise above actions like these and, as stated at the outset, strive to maintain a high level of civility and an environment in which differing opinions based on religious, cultural, or ethnic backgrounds are respected. Expressions of antisemitism and Islamophobia will not be tolerated on our campus.

Boston University has the intellectual resources and the operational means to strengthen our collaborative culture, to deepen our knowledge about the Middle East and the roots of the current conflict, and to facilitate spirited but respectful discussion. We need to be able to engage in civil discourse with those with whom we may not agree.

We will continue engaging in dialogue with students, faculty, and staff across the University, and we will continue to respond promptly to all reports of behavior and actions that constitute threats or harassment. We will take appropriate action on the basis of policy, law, and evidence.

In addition, as we begin the spring semester, we are launching three initiatives to provide essential resources for learning and understanding of differences.

1. Learning and Engagement Opportunities: Society, Civility, and Shared Humanity

We have an opportunity and responsibility to educate and engage with each other in the context of current societal conflicts, using this knowledge to develop frameworks for paths forward as a campus community. Scott Taylor, dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, and Kimberly Howard, associate professor in Wheelock College of Education & Human Development and chair of the Faculty Council, have agreed to lead development of community learning opportunities in conjunction with faculty across BU.

2. Working Groups to Advance Understanding

We are establishing two working groups reporting to the president:

The Working Group on Jewish Life and Addressing Antisemitism and Anti-Jewish and Anti-Israeli Harassment and the Working Group on Muslim and Arab Life and Addressing Islamophobia and Anti-Arab and Anti-Palestinian Harassment.

The charge to these working groups will be to identify and help our community better understand the unique challenges faced by Jewish, Muslim, and Arab students, faculty, and staff on campus and to make recommendations about issues that need to be addressed. The faculty, student, and staff members of the working groups will be appointed by the president. The expectation is that as the semester progresses, the two working groups will find common ground and collaborate extensively. We anticipate receiving an interim progress report by the end of the spring semester.

Nancy Harrowitz, professor of Italian and Jewish studies and director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, will chair the Working Group on Jewish Life, and Muhammad Zaman, professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Center on Forced Displacement, will chair the Working Group on Muslim and Arab Life.

3. Website: Advancing an Inclusive Culture Grounded in Dignity, Fairness, and Respect

We are also launching a dedicated comprehensive website highlighting our core principles that will share information about educational opportunities, including the Learning and Engagement Opportunities and other related events. Information about how to report complaints of harassment or discrimination will be provided, in addition to links to available campus resources including counseling and emotional health services, religious life events and points of contact, and the Boston University Police Department.

In his autobiography, Howard Thurman (Hon.’67) described the establishment of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first racially integrated, intercultural, and interfaith church in the United States. He wrote, “…all our accumulated experiences of the past had given us two crucial gifts for this undertaking: a profound conviction that meaningful and creative experiences between peoples can be more compelling than all the ideas, concepts, faiths, fears, ideologies, and prejudices that divide them; and absolute faith that if such experiences can be multiplied and sustained over a time interval of sufficient duration any barrier that separates one person from another can be undermined and eliminated.” We honor Dr. Thurman’s legacy through our steadfast commitment to ensure the safety and well-being of every member of our community, to always seek common ground, and to be a community rooted in our shared humanity and treating each other with dignity, fairness, and respect.

We all have an important role to play in this journey. I look forward to working closely with you. Thank you for your commitment, and best wishes for the spring semester.


Kenneth W. Freeman signature

Kenneth W. Freeman
President Ad Interim