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The Journey to Understanding and Knowledge

Each year we welcome new students and colleagues who bring fresh energy and ideas to the Penn community.

As an academic community, we eagerly examine and explore issues in depth. We pick apart one another's arguments, theories, and papers--because we know that the impact of different views and perspectives strengthens our work. We joyfully seize the challenge to considersociety's most vexing and intractable problems.

No other milieu, I believe, even comes close to a university campus for sheer intellectual exuberance. The Penn community derives its intellectual vitality from a fundamental and unshakeable commitment to freedom of thought, inquiry, association, and of expression. We provide open forums for critical thinking and informed discussions. We also provide safe haven for the widest possible range of opinions, from the brilliant and sublime even to the scurrilous and ridiculous.

As we begin a new academic year so close to the first anniversary of September 11, we continue to feel both collective anguish over the tragedy that befell our country, and collective apprehension over what is yet to come. During these uncertain times of escalating tensions and peril, I believe it becomes more important for all of us to reaffirm and renew our commitment to the values of academic community.

These values include unfettered freedom of expression, the importance of civic engagement in every aspect of University's life, and robust, honest engagement with those with whom we disagree.

The next year may put these values to the test as the Penn community confronts many issues that undoubtedly will stir up strong emotions and profoundly serious disagreements among us. Whether we are debating issues right at home, such as graduate student unionization, or those that hit close to home, such as the tragic conflict in the Middle East, we face a very tall order: How do we encourage thoughtful discourse and debate while at the same time allowing all voices to be heard?

As educators, we teach our students to explore issues thoroughly. We draw distinctions between informed arguments steeped in civility and reason on one hand, and repulsive rants steeped in hatred and nonsense on the other. We know how much knowledge and understanding our students gain from the former. We despair over the pain and anger the latter creates among members of the Penn community.

I expect the coming year to be filled with the kind of intrepid explorations and robust discussions worthy of a great University and its superb faculty, students, and staff. I would also hope and expect that members of our community will refrain from speech, gestures, or actions solely intended to rip us asunder.

Nonetheless, we must also anticipate that someone on the Penn campus may uncork a nasty brew of vicious comments that seek to marginalize or dehumanize a segment of our campus community.

If and when that happens, how should we respond?

Some might argue that some views are so heinous and hateful to a community that anyone who expresses them should be condemned, punished, or even expelled. However, if we cherish freedom of expression as a core academic value, then we must resist the urge to use the power of the University or the presidency to silence any lawful speech or flatten any speaker who expresses hateful and despicable views.

Our defense of free speech does not mean we therefore remain aloof either to the pain felt by groups who are the targets of hate speech, or to their deeply felt concerns for their own safety.

To the contrary, the University will go to great lengths to provide the resources to support thoughtful, reasoned dialogue and debate. We will not hesitate to call upon Public Safety, the Chaplain's Office, or University Life to provide whatever protection and support is needed to promote a physically safe environment for all members of the campus community, including groups who have suffered religious and ethnic prejudice in the wake of September 11.

In the past, some members of the Penn community have mistakenly interpreted my refusal to condemn specific speech publicly as a sign of personal or institutional insensitivity or indifference.

Privately, I churn in dismay and disgust at the offensiveness and ignorance of views expressed by a minuscule number of people in the Penn community. But I also don't believe that presidential condemnations of specific speech strengthen our academic community. To the contrary, they tend to stop the debate dead in its tracks.

I believe we are better off using even the most objectionable speech as a catalyst to a productive, illuminating, and inclusive conversation that becomes a forum for reasoned and thoughtful ideas.

Invariably, hateful ideas will crumble under the weight of relentless scrutiny and informed debate.

In recent years, members of the Penn community have responded to incidents of hate speech by turning understandable outrage into creative engagement. Just over the past year, I have observed a passionate determination by Muslims, Jews, and Christians on campus to forge a true interfaith dialogue. I know I can always count on the Penn community to harness its passion and acumen to remain vigorously and constructively engaged.

Let's begin the new academic year in this spirit of "spirited" engagement with each other as a continuing public conversation and collective enterprise through which we build the kind of robust and creative academic community we all desire. The academic community of Penn, which persists in the face of rapid and far-reaching changes, will be strengthened and enhanced to the benefit of all. Let our journey to understanding and knowledge go forward.

Almanac, Vol. 49, No. 2, September 3, 2002


September 3, 2002
Volume 49 Number 2

Penn alumna Sadie Alexander's name will live on at the newly named preK-8 school.
Welcome Back: Messages From the President and From the Senate Chair.
Penn and Trammell Crow have terminated the arrangements they had for management and other services.
The Pottruck Health and Fitness Center opens with tours of the state-of-the-art recreation facility.
ISC unveils a new authentication system for better computer security--out with the PennNet IDs and in with the PennKeys.
Penn has lost eight members of the Penn community over the summer.
The Report of the Working Group on Human Subjects Research in the SocioBehavioral Sciences.
The updated, revised Three-Year Academic Calendar lets you look ahead to 2004-2005.
The Undergraduate Admissions seminars for Penn faculty and staff families are this week--the first one is at 5:15 p.m. today.
The September AT PENN calendar includes a list of the special 9/11 commemorative events that span from morning until evening across the campus.