Message on Campus Discourse

November 7, 2023

Dear Faculty, Students and Staff, 

Over the past few weeks, our university community has been shaken by the terrible and tragic events unfolding thousands of miles away in Israel and Palestine. Many members of our diverse academic community have friends and family who have been directly impacted by those events, which have evoked feelings of anger, fear, or despair. All of us have been affected by the scenes of devastation and suffering, and particularly by the deaths of innocent civilians. As a Jesuit, Catholic university, we have repeatedly joined our voice with that of Pope Francis in decrying terrorism and war as human failures and in calling for the preservation of innocent human life, the release of hostages, the free passage of aid and the pursuit of lasting peace (Oct. 10 message and Oct. 26 message). In keeping with our approach to university statements, however, we have resisted calls to stake out an “orthodox” Seattle University position on this complex conflict. Issuing statements endorsing (or condemning) specific actors or contested propositions would have the effect of disregarding or silencing dissenting members of our community. Instead, our focus as a university has been—and will continue to be—on caring for all members of our community, especially our students, and on affording opportunities for healing, learning and reflecting. 

Even as we grieve and process the events taking place around the world, our work as a university continues. We attend (or teach) classes. We do homework and take (or grade) examinations. We engage in research or the production of creative works.  We seek to learn and understand more about the events around us and to share, discuss and debate our diverse perspectives. We also search for the time and space to reflect, pray, eat, rest and play. Each of these activities is vital to our educational mission as a Jesuit university, and we need to preserve space for all of them. Doing so requires the careful administration of reasonable parameters on when, where and how expressive activities may occur. Our university policies around the use of campus facilities and the organization of campus events are the outcome of thoughtful, collective discernment about how to reconcile the many competing considerations at play. 

As a university, we are committed to the robust exchange of ideas and reasoned disagreement, both of which are foundational to learning and the pursuit of knowledge. This commitment pushes us to tolerate a great deal of speech that might create discomfort or even pain. As a private institution, however, we have wider latitude than our public counterparts in crafting norms for campus speech that preserve space for our educational mission as well as for thoughtful and constructive engagement around controversial issues. 

As a Jesuit university, we approach questions about campus discourse with the education and holistic well-being of our students as the center of our concern. Name calling and vitriol are permissible in the public square, and on much of social media. But we hold ourselves to a higher standard, even while we aim to preserve ample space for expressive freedom. Importantly, just because we can do or say something does not mean we should. We do not need to do or say everything that Seattle University policy permits. As members of a learning community and a community of care, we encourage you to speak with empathy and to listen to one another with charity and generosity. Even as we discuss divisive issues, the Jesuit principle of presupposition counsels us to honor the humanity—and presume the good faith—of those with whom we disagree. 

Unfortunately, when we survey the world around us, we learn that Seattle University’s values are the exception rather than the rule. Over the past few weeks, the already toxic and polarized ecosystems of social media have become even more so. We have seen doxing used as a tool to discourage students from expressing controversial points of view. Some protests on other campuses have devolved into fistfights and intimidation. Speech and actions rooted in antisemitic and Islamophobic hatred have occurred around the country. Close to home, Seattle synagogues recently received threatening messages on a website and in the mail, and blatantly antisemitic graffiti and flyers have appeared in our own Capitol Hill neighborhood. 

At Seattle University, we have clear policies prohibiting antisemitism and Islamophobia, or discrimination of any kind, as well as a firm commitment to creating a welcoming and safe environment where all may feel a sense of belonging (Bias Harassment Policy). Although we have not received any specific complaints about harassing speech or conduct on our campus through our established reporting structures, we have heard from individual members of our Jewish and Muslim communities that they feel unsafe, silenced or disrespected. We have a rich set of resources with which to address these feelings and experiences. Campus Ministry has and will continue to organize opportunities for students, faculty and staff to come together across religious, political and other differences. Our academic units have and will continue to create opportunities for all of us to learn more about the history (and the present reality) of complex world events. Our Student and Campus Life teams have and will continue to support students through Counseling and Psychological Services, Wellness and Health services and our MOSAIC Center. Our diverse student organizations have and will continue to meet, write, discuss, advocate and criticize—as they should at an institution of higher education. 

The approaching holiday season, with its many festivals celebrating the power of light to overcome darkness, reminds us to love and care for one another even across our many differences and disagreements. In the remaining weeks of the fall term, as we collectively go about the work of Seattle University, let us do so with an intellectual humility that is befitting the complexity of the world in which we live, and of the events we are witnessing. As we exercise our rights of academic freedom and freedom of expression, let us consider the impacts of our words and actions on those around us. As we debate and disagree, let us seek to build relationship and understanding rather than sowing enmity and mistrust. We all have the ability and the responsibility to engage with one another in ways that acknowledge the shared dignity that each of us enjoys—as members of this academic community and as human beings loved by God. 


Eduardo M. Peñalver