Dear Members of the Saint Louis University Community,
As members of a Catholic, Jesuit University, we value and uphold the dignity of every person. I am pained that the members of our Muslim Students’ Association — our students — have been demonized by a retired lieutenant colonel, former congressman, and provocateur, who will be a guest of SLU’s College Republicans student organization on Thursday night.
I, for one, condemn the claims made against our students who belong to the SLU Muslim Students’ Association — people we study and live with and know to be peaceful, tolerant, and merely seeking what we all strive to obtain: a rigorous education, a good job, and a safe and secure future for themselves and their families. In recent days, many others and I have worked to hear and understand the pain our Muslim students and allies are feeling. Let me take this opportunity to remind these — and all — SLU students that I am in solidarity with you. Our University’s mission calls us to love and support each other.
Yet, as distasteful and contrary to our Gospel values as this vilification may be, I believe that we should proceed with the College Republicans' program Thursday night. As an institution of higher learning, SLU must resist the urge to suppress speech and instead expose all ideas and positions, provocative or pedestrian, to critical scrutiny. The fundamental purpose of a community of scholars and learners is to engage respectfully rather than repress. And through this critical, yet civil engagement, the truth emerges. Let us approach the remarks of any guest speaker on our campus in this same manner.
Last Friday, Dr. John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, came to campus to talk with our trustees. Among the topics Jack discussed was intellectual freedom. He recalled a 2012 address during which he noted, “We cannot be a university dedicated to intellectual excellence and at the same time place limits on what might be said and discussed.”
Unfortunately, we are living in a moment when vitriol, hectoring, and volume appear more prevalent than evidence, logic, and civility. In such a moment, our noble mission and storied history call us to aim for a higher expectation of our University community and ourselves. Respect is key here: disciplined discussion on issues of, at times, intense disagreement. Each one of us bears responsibility for helping SLU be a model for the intelligent discourse and civility for which Jesuit universities have long been celebrated.
My dear friends and colleagues, because some do not adhere to such high ideals, many of us may be tested this week and beyond. I ask that we continue to act within our institution’s cherished values and rise together to the challenges of this and other such occasions.
Higher purpose. Greater good.
Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D.