A Message from the President

University of Dubuque

Charlottesville, et al
August 21, 2017

Our campus Chaplain talked to me about a student from California who had inquired whether I was going to issue a statement about Charlottesville.  By the time this piece is made public, every one of my readers will know about the events in Charlottesville.  They will have read or listened to our President’s initial remarks, and formed an opinion about whether his responses were genuine, forceful or equivocating.  They’ll know more about the driver who plowed into the demonstrators, scattering bodies as if made of plastic, and those individuals who were killed, maimed and traumatized.  They’ll be able to name many of the protestors and counter-protestors; groups like Neo-Nazis, Nationalists, White Supremacists, Militias, KKK,  Black-Lives Matter, Indivisible Charlottesville, and they will maybe even know about a young man named Tyler Lloyd who stood inside Emancipation Park offering water and holding a sign that read, “free hugs.”  But that’s not the essence behind the question our student is asking me.  At least I don’t believe it is.

Our student, along with his parents, understandably, is wondering whether it is safe for him here at the University of Dubuque.  He may also be wondering if it’s safe for him to be in Iowa.  In Dubuque?  It’s the type of question every parent, guardian, aunt or uncle is asking now as they send their children away from home and to a college or university.  And their question is reasonable—and tragic—just the same.

The violence of Charlottesville happened on or near the University of Virginia campus.  But in addition to Charlottesville, families have begun to pay attention to what is (or is not) happening on other college campuses.  Not only do they see reports and read stories about speakers who are disinvited from campuses for holding a particular political viewpoint, but they have also witnessed protests that turned violent in such places as Berkeley and the University of Washington.  If they are really in tune to the on-going discussion, they may even be in a state of complete disbelief over a comment in which a professor intoned that the UVA “…seems institutionally incapable of moral clarity.”  “What can a President of a contemporary University say?” he writes.  “The University of Virginia is many things… [but as a multiversity, it has] little common purpose but the perpetuation of itself and its procedures.”  And citing sociologist Max Weber from nearly a century ago, “…if [we look] to the University for guidance on how to live, [we will] be disappointed.”

I (and we) respectfully disagree.

The University of Dubuque is a faith-based organization of teaching and learning.  Our Mission, which rests on a firm Judeo-Christian foundation, calls us to be hospitable to other faith traditions; striving to facilitate a diverse and equitable community where Christian love is practiced, even while we live and learn together, fully human and dysfunctional as we can sometimes be, as undergraduate, graduate, and theological seminary students; professors, professional staff, and trustees.  We have both the moral and Missional authority to state, unequivocally, that certain actions are not acceptable within this community.  We are not only open to, but enthusiastically encourage the rigorous exchange of well-thought out ideas and opinions.  However, we will not accept violence as either the natural outcome of differing opinions or as a barrier to welcoming controversial opinions to our campus—that’s out of bounds.  Debate and the free exchange of ideas matter.  So does listening, respect, restraint and tolerance.  The moral authority upon which we make that claim is that we are all human, and, in the words of our Dean, we are also all “…image bearers of God.”  And image bearers of God don’t throw stones—or swing clubs, spray chemicals, light flares, or parade around in white-hooded robes.

About ten years ago, our archivist brought a letter to me written by one of my predecessors from the 1920s.  In that letter, the former president was informing the members of the KKK that they would not be allowed to host a rally on the University’s Chalmers Field.  Even though there were very few African-American students during that period of our school’s history, individuals from a Protestant background sometimes forget that the Klan was equally vehement in its hatred of Roman Catholicism.  Dubuque was, and is, a predominately Roman Catholic community.  Because of the foundation upon which our Mission rested, the President had the moral authority to say “no.”

What cannot be missed about this entire tragic weekend, is that the bulk of the protests and counter-protests took place in or near a little piece of public property now known as Emancipation Park.  Until June of this year, Emancipation Park had been known as Lee Park, home to a statue of Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate Army.  The statue and the park were built in 1917, about fifty years after the end of the War, as a tribute to Lee during a time of regional romantic reflection and nostalgia, especially for Civil War generals.  It was also the period in which segregation and the repression of African-Americans took root in southern states, and where the reassertion of Confederate mores accelerated.  The statue is clearly a tribute and a symbol, as nearly all statues are.  But what is the statue a tribute to?  And for what is it a symbol?  To one group, it’s a tribute to a beloved leader.  To another, it’s a symbol of unimaginable repression.  Because I happen to be Caucasian and do not experience the on-going legacy of the sin of slavery, I will never be able to fully grasp the pain behind that symbol.  However, I’m pretty sure I would see the statue of Lee differently were my skin to have more pigmentation.

Perhaps more than anything else, the purpose of receiving an education at a University with a Mission like ours is to help emancipate us from our ignorance.  And the one true thing about ignorance is that it exists in ample abundance in every religious tradition, ethnicity, demographic profile, political party, college campus, city, state, country, and family.  To be human is to be ignorant, but is also to be an image bearer of God.

As I have said before, the University of Dubuque should be known as a place that facilitates the free exchange of well-thought-out ideas.  Ideas are to be judged by their merits.  Both good ideas and bad ideas sharpen even better ideas.  Ideas matter because thinking matters.  Thinking matters because we live in a complicated era that demands our best ideas to begin solving our most complex problems, and problems don’t get serious attention in echo chambers which, sadly, is where many of our country’s institutions exist today.  That needs to change.

Places like UD must exist if our Republic—and our world—is, ultimately, to be emancipated from all the forms of bigotry and hatred that keep us from being fully human in the way God intended us to be.  Our Republic also expects a certain return from those among its populace that have been privileged to be the beneficiaries of this kind of rigorous education:  it’s called engagement.  Sometimes that engagement takes the form of a University president telling the Klan that they are not welcome here, or that it’s time to earnestly reexamine what we are communicating through the public symbols of our Republic.

So let me conclude where I began by responding to our student’s question.  Yes: I am writing a statement about Charlottesville but, as you can see, it’s more than that.  It’s an analysis of the enormously complex and painful work that our country is in need of you to consider, understand and, eventually, reconcile.  You will be safe here.  But while you are here, I need you to strengthen your mind and passion by engaging and taking full advantage of the resources that this Mission has to offer you.  If you do that, and I know you will, you will eventually be known as both a sense-maker and a peace-maker—he and she whom, I hope, will inherit the earth.

Oh, and regarding the statue?  Here’s my suggestion; actually, it’s the suggestion of one of our sons.  Let’s carefully move the statue to the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and respectfully locate it near the F.W. Woolworth soda fountain counter which is on display in the middle of a large lobby that is regularly swarming with high school students likely visiting the nation’s capital for the first time.  There they learn of five young Americans who, in 1960, sat down in an act of civil disobedience to order a soft drink in Little Rock, Arkansas. Charles Parker, Frank James, Vernon Mott, Eldridge Davis and Chester Briggs helped to change how America saw herself.  A statue of Robert E. Lee, respectfully displayed and located in the same vicinity, will also continue to teach future generations about who we are and whom we are laboring to become.  In that almost sacred space a portion of our country’s complex history can be witnessed and maybe eventually understood—absent the stones, clubs, and flares.  As my son reminded me, “…we learn from both the good and the bad, Dad.”

Jeffrey F. Bullock, Ph.D.