Throughout American history, our universities have been places where free inquiry, intellectual exploration, and personal growth have enriched students’ lives and prepared them for citizenship. Public universities have the unique mission of making the promise of opportunity available to all who have the ability and determination to succeed, regardless of background. Our students must graduate prepared to prosper personally, live together in harmony, and serve as citizen-leaders to sustain our remarkable democracy.
At OU, we will not accept the false choice of supporting either free expression or diversity. They are both essential. When we protect and strengthen one, we protect and strengthen the other. At times, it might feel like the two are in tension – even incompatible. But, if we live out our principles, I believe that we can be a much-needed example in our society of how they cannot only co-exist, but reinforce and bolster one another.
Academic freedom and freedom of expression are inviolable principles. Without them, our universities will not live up to their potential and promise as places of open discourse, unparalleled creativity, and an unyielding search for the truth. A university is a lively, dynamic community – full of cutting-edge research and the robust exchange of ideas. A campus culture that genuinely prizes free expression makes this possible. And so, great universities educate, rather than indoctrinate, teaching students how to think critically, not what to think. Universities also model for students how rigorous and respectful civil discourse is the path both to truth and compassionate understanding.
So too, we are fundamentally committed to making OU a place of belonging for all – it is one of our Strategic Plan’s five pillars. Students of all backgrounds and perspectives must feel they belong, or they will not flourish – and, as a result, the university will not flourish. At OU, we cherish our diversity, in all its forms – intellectual, political, socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, and more. Everyone has a voice, and each voice can and will be heard. In championing a broad notion of diversity, we protect a quintessentially American idea: that the doors of opportunity are open to all and everyone has something to contribute. I am the very product of our university offering a better future. My father was a first-generation college student at OU, and my family’s future, and the lives of so many others, were impacted by the opportunities he found here. This idea is at the very heart of our democracy, and great universities like OU nurture it by embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campuses and instilling a culture of dignity and respect for all.
Our actions reflect the depth of our commitment to preparing students for citizenship in our democracy and in a global marketplace. Rather than hiding from the realities that confront our society and our students, we choose to give our students an advantage – curriculum early in their college experience providing tools to understand others not like themselves. We also take pride in the fact that we require every student to take courses in U.S. history and government. Throughout the entirety of our curriculum, we hope our students will learn how to understand and engage civilly with others, including those with whom they disagree. We know that this type of preparation is critical for them to succeed in college and, importantly, in their careers. It will also make our society stronger.
In all of our efforts, it is essential that we hold ourselves accountable to these principles. At OU we live by a higher standard, and it’s our belief that each member of our community can benefit from our adherence to and celebration of First Amendment freedoms and diversity, equity, and inclusion.
What gives our university such a magical energy – the fact that so many people, from so many walks of life, with so many different perspectives and experiences come together in one place – is also what makes our democracy so precious and yet so fragile. The greatest threat to democracy is that we grow to hate and mistrust each other. At OU, we are a large and open community. We know that we will not be perfect and that we will face challenges, including from those who abuse our freedoms to espouse hate, or exploit our openness to try to divide us. But we must, and we will, remain steadfast in our collective effort to embody what is best about our society – to live out the promise that the values of freedom and diversity are essential to the success of our students and our society.
Live On, University,
Joseph Harroz, Jr.