Universities Should Lead Conversation on Inclusion

Over the past few months, on campuses large and small, students across the nation have called attention to issues rooted in uncomfortable realities. We have been confronted anew with the fact that this country, along with virtually every major institution in it, has a deep and ancient wound with respect to matters of race.

Our country is especially focused on these issues of late. A recent poll by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 82 percent of Americans say racism is a problem; indeed, twice as many people now characterize it as a "big" problem compared to just four years ago.

It should not be surprising that university campuses are particularly intense places for these essential conversations. Universities are both microcosms of society and more diverse than many other institutions. Differences too often hidden elsewhere are unavoidable here. This fact is not a problem -- it is an opportunity. Universities are places with great potential for people of many backgrounds and perspectives to work toward "a more perfect union."

Various campuses this fall saw different catalysts and responses, although all shared the common thread of being venues for difficult public discussions. At Yale, we responded first by listening: listening to students willing to share first-hand accounts of their experiences on our campus. We believe that a commitment to free expression carries with it the duty to listen, and to learn, as we seek to lead.

These are complex and deeply-rooted issues. Viral videos and social media clips cannot ever capture the depth and breadth of conversations that occur on campuses such as Yale's. Those who took the time to see and hear what occurred here know that the engagement and debate were, in fact, robust, productive, and respectful. Students and faculty of widely varying views launched countless discussions, disseminated conflicting op-eds, and published well-reasoned statements.

Free expression has not been stifled at Yale. We are functioning just the way a collegiate community should in attending to these challenges. Having surfaced important differences in experience and perspective, our campus community is searching in good faith for ways to recognize and address them.

Issues involving race and inclusion have always been difficult and painful, with no simple diagnosis or solution, and college campuses can be crucibles for overdue changes in society. The Yale Daily News reported in 1969 that Coretta Scott King, speaking on campus, observed that while some student behavior might be "juvenile," there was nothing juvenile in protesting injustice and that "students want to start today on the world of tomorrow."

Given our present context of fraying global politics, challenges in our criminal justice system, economic fragility, and increasing inequality, we would do well to examine current campus protests in the light of national concerns and movements. We should recognize, as Mrs. King noted, that while college students may sometimes lack the perspective or demeanor of those with longer experience, they may be highlighting unfinished work in our society that we all need to confront and pursue.

At Yale we announced initiatives in November on matters important not only to our students, but also to many faculty, staff, and alumni in the university community. In each case we are moving forward with improvements we had been discussing internally over a significant period of time: faculty diversity, student financial aid, mental health services, student organizations supporting underrepresented groups, and academic work on race and ethnicity.

We made it absolutely clear that Yale will maintain its exceptional commitment to free inquiry and free expression. No one at Yale has been or will be relieved of responsibilities or subjected to disciplinary action for expressing an opinion. We will not tolerate attempts to intimidate or prevent community members from speaking their minds or hearing an opposing view, however unsettling that view may be.

As great universities do, we want to model, as best we can, what we hope to see elsewhere in America: engaged citizens seeking a better understanding of each other in the face of issues that divide us, for the sake of a stronger, more closely connected community, a community trying to live up to values and aspirations that all of us rightly share. It's a discussion that naturally starts right here.


Peter Salovey is the 23rd president of Yale University, and the Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology. His presidential term began in July 2013. Read his full bio here.