Welcome to a new academic year! I am excited to welcome new students, faculty, and staff to the College of Arts & Sciences, and to launch several new projects and programs, while remaining committed to the priorities that I outlined in August 2016. This fall we find ourselves in a new, more dangerous and divisive social and political context than this time last year. From the catastrophic flooding occurring now in Houston and the threat of fascism and white supremacy displayed last month in Charlottesville, to the reckless, hostile launching of missiles over Japan by North Korea just this past week, we face serious dangers in our world and our nation that set a troubling context for the coming year. We also face multiple social divisions that challenge us to reaffirm our commitment to evidence, truth, and ethical leadership: to listen, learn, debate, and find common ground. Now more than ever, we need to focus on what we do best as educators and what we stand for as servants of the public good.
Our mission as a global, urban research university to teach and do original, impactful scholarship gives us the responsibility and the foundation to enable our students and society more generally to understand and address the dangers we face. We do this first and foremost by seeking truth and applying our knowledge to global challenges through dialogue, debate, and a careful sifting of evidence. We ask hard questions: How can we as physical beings be morally responsible for our actions? Why are there racial disparities in the prison population in the US? How likely is Boston to experience catastrophic flooding in the next decade? What is interstellar weather like outside the heliosphere? Intellectual integrity requires that we not succumb to facile or convenient explanations, or pursue answers because they match our ideological prejudices or pander to external funders. The commitment to testing and justifying our views by evidence is not only the best means to discover our problems and find their solutions, it models for our society the process by which policies should be crafted and changed.
The university is a place where ideas are honed and tested collaboratively, through dialogue and debate. As I wrote earlier this year, the freedom to speak unpopular or controversial views, and to peacefully protest speech, is essential to our mission. Again, our values of intellectual integrity and openness to new ideas and new expressions demand that we encourage discussion, not stifle it. Many campuses have recently been tested by the appearances of divisive speakers, and we may be similarly tested. Will we successfully defend the right of free speech? The divisions that we see in our society, whether political, economic, or identity-based, represent real differences in how people see and experience their lives and the future of the world. Peaceful co-existence requires that these different views be honestly exchanged and examined. Listening and communicating opinion and values is an essential civic skill for our students and is only learned through practice and modeling. Political speeches, protests, and rallies are critical opportunities for our students to learn these skills, and we must welcome them, while not being deterred from our essential mission to teach and do research.
We must also be clear in our condemnation of fascism, xenophobia, and white supremacy and stand up for the dignity of all persons. The purpose of a liberal education is to empower students and enable them to live as free, autonomous individuals who can collectively and democratically govern themselves. When persons’ fundamental identities of race, gender, or sexuality are disrespected, their opportunities to learn and fully participate in debate are threatened. Our intellectual community thrives on diversity of thought, background, and life experience. Therefore, respectful inclusion is as fundamental to our mission as intellectual honesty and free speech.
As a non-profit educational institution, we are committed to pursuing the public good. At Boston University, this pursuit is our legacy. We are committed to inclusive, open debate, and to the pursuit of truth and of justice. Through pursuing our values of truth, freedom, and inclusion, we can best withstand the dangers and divisions that confront us, and achieve a better world. Ours is a noble mission that motivates me every day, and makes me proud to stand with our colleagues and students in its collective pursuit. I look forward to pursuing that mission with you all in the year ahead even as I anticipate that significant challenges await us.