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Announcing a Working Group on Student Invited Speakers and Performers

October 20, 2016

I write to announce the creation of a Working Group on Invited Speakers and Performers. There are a number of writings and experiences that led me to this decision.

Since arriving at SLU, I have reflected on the tensions between our Catholic, Jesuit, and University identities and our changing world. The challenges stemming from these longstanding, complex relationships were once again brought to the forefront in discussions regarding a speaker we hosted this fall.

While discerning the significance of the aforementioned tensions moving forward, I reread Decree 17: “Jesuits and University Life.” It contends:

As we look to the future, we need consciously to be on guard that both the noun “university” and the adjective “Jesuit” always remain fully honored. The noun guarantees a commitment to the fundamental autonomy, integrity, and honesty of a university precisely as a university: a place of serene and open search for and discussion of the truth. It also points to the mission proper to every university — as the indispensable horizon and context for a genuine preservation, renewal, and communication of knowledge and human values.

We affirm the adjective “Jesuit” no less strongly. This presupposes the authentic participation in our basic Jesuit identity and mission of any university calling itself Jesuit, or any university, which operates ultimately under our responsibility. While we want to avoid any distortion of the nature of a university or any reeducation of its mission to only one legitimate goal, the adjective “Jesuit” nevertheless requires that the university act in harmony with the demands of the service of faith and promotion of justice found in Decree 4 of GC 32. A Jesuit university can and must discover its own proper institutional forms and authentic purposes a specific and appropriate arena for the encounter with the faith which does justice.

As members of the SLU community, we seek to welcome people from a variety of faith traditions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, abilities and political beliefs. Our University identities intersect in complex ways, requiring nuanced approaches to foster environments where all can flourish. When we create room for difficult conversations, we create space to find Truth.

As a Catholic institution: Through our words and deeds, we affirm our commitment to uphold the human dignity of all, in part through respectful discourse. We have a responsibility to cultivate a community where our students, faculty, and staff can find wholeness. An ethos of care and compassion is essential to creating an environment where the desire to know truth does not ignore the vulnerability we share while pursuing it.

As a Jesuit institution: We understand that the discovery of truth is contingent upon our willingness to allow vigorous discussion of differing or contrary ideas. We know first-hand that, “[i]n and through [Jesuit] universities, important debates take place about ethics, future directions for economics and politics, and the very meaning of human existence, debates that shape our culture” (Decree 17).

As a University: We do not fear the presentation of any perspective. The academy itself is predicated on a basic trust that permits and promotes intellectual freedom. In the Papal encyclical, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II explained, “A Catholic University’s privileged task is ‘to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.’”

The complexities of society need laboratories for thought and experimentation. SLU is one of these laboratories. Students have the agency to dialogue freely and openly in order to grapple with competing and complex thoughts and theories. When students do not feel valued for their ideas, perspectives, or beliefs, even as we strive to promote free intellectual inquiry, then it must be addressed.

Unfortunately, we live in a time where many speakers and opinions about them divide our community well before they arrive on campus. In the short period I have been here, the mere announcement of some speakers and events ignited immediate controversy. In each case, I received passionate pleas and arguments — some rather aggressive — to both allow and not allow the speaker. Further, community and national religious leaders occasionally express their displeasure and request reconsiderations. For some, it is insufficient for us to argue that a decision to allow any particular program is not concurrently indicative of the University’s condoning or endorsement of events or speakers that seemingly contradict our core Catholic and Jesuit values.

I realize it is infeasible to make decisions about certain speakers or performers without any controversy. In any case, there are those who applaud our decision and those who are disappointed, if not enraged. Nonetheless, I believe it is time to hold formalized, thoughtful, conversations on our values, practices, and policies. These conversations in and of themselves should unite us and lead to a richer understanding of the dynamics between our cherished values and the complex society in which we live.

The Working Group on Student Invited Speakers and Performers will consist of Jesuits, faculty, administrators, and students. I will consult with the president of the Faculty Senate for recommendations on faculty members to serve and the presidents of SGA and GSA for names of students.

This working group will be charged with reviewing our current policies and practices, collecting and studying statements and policies of similar institutions, and identifying a set of questions to gather campus input. Most importantly, they will engage in a process with opportunities for meaningful dialogue. At the conclusion of this process, we will collaborate to create a document that will help guide future decisions. My goal is to have this work completed by the end of the 2016 – 2017 academic year.

Despite the disagreements we may have amongst ourselves, I have witnessed some remarkable moments when it comes to the speakers we have hosted and declined to host. I have personally participated in several impressive discussions with our students, faculty and staff. After one such meeting last year, I wrote, “I am extremely proud of the students with whom I met today and deeply grateful for their willingness to meet and strategize together. It is apparent to me that they share the mission and values of our University and are working for the greater good.”

Let us now hold thoughtful conversations in this spirit and continue to learn and grow together. Thank you all for you do to support each other, to support me, and to advance our great University.

Sincerely,

Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D.
President