Reflections After Charlottesville

August 16, 2017

This is the time of year when we mark important transitions. We look ahead and plan for the future. But it is also a time for reflection and contemplation before the busyness of the new year begins. Like many of you, I was deeply troubled by the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last week. A spectacle of violence, white supremacy, and hatred gripped the United States and the world—sadly, not for the first time. Such incidents of racism, nativism, and anti-Semitism have been all too ubiquitous in American history, despite our country’s ideological commitment to freedom and equality. Most of all, we mourn the lives that were lost: Heather Heyer, a passionate advocate for justice who was killed when a car struck a crowd of protesters, and H. Jay Cullen and Berke M. M. Bates of the Virginia State Police, who died in the line of duty.

We must also ask what this incident and the broader history in which it is embedded mean for schools and institutions of higher learning. Yale condemns violence, racism, and bigotry. As the Association of American Universities stated, “We support First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceable assembly, but acts of violence and intimidation are not protected by the First Amendment.” Yale will always support in the strongest terms freedom of expression on its campus, but as I have said in the past, this commitment in no way conflicts with our dedication to fostering a truly inclusive, diverse, and welcoming community at Yale.

Furthermore, in our pursuit of “light and truth,” we must also seek to understand the difficult, complex problems gripping our world. Yalies, here on campus and around the world, have a responsibility to engage, understand, and ultimately address the challenges we face.

In October 1963, the writer James Baldwin spoke to a group of school teachers in New York City. “The purpose of education,” he told them, “is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions…To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.” Baldwin pointed out, however, that societies—to their own detriment—often prioritize adherence to the status quo above cultivating an engaged, questioning citizenry. 

Recent events had given Baldwin every reason to despair. Following the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August, when Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Klansmen detonated explosives in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four girls. Just days before he spoke to teachers in New York, Baldwin had traveled to Selma, Alabama, to help support a voter registration effort organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). That day 300 African-American citizens stood in line for hours at the Dallas County courthouse to register to vote, but only a handful succeeded. Standing on the street in Selma, Baldwin watched as the local law enforcement officers harassed would-be voters and beat and arrested SNCC volunteers while FBI and Justice Department officials looked on. 

Yet even against this backdrop, Baldwin had hope. If he were a teacher, what would he tell his students? 

I would try to make [them] know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to [them].

In recent weeks, we have been reminded of the beautiful and terrible elements of our history and our world. I want to tell you that the world belongs to us—all of us. At a time when the spirit of hate, bitterness, and division seems stronger than ever, Yale must foster a community of inclusion. We reject hate, violence, and intimidation. And we are guided by the words of our mission statement: 

Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice. Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society. We carry out this mission through the free exchange of ideas in an ethical, interdependent, and diverse community of faculty, staff, students, and alumni.

Together we can build a larger, more beautiful world. We can help our students and each other “ask questions of the universe.” I am excited to join with all of you—the entire Yale community—this year as we continue this vital, meaningful work.