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Reaffirming values in challenging times (Dec. 9, 2014)

The issue of sexual assault on college campuses has gained unprecedented attention over the past two years. This is good, and critical, because only by bringing a painful problem into the light can we make progress. Like many universities, MSU is working hard on this very difficult societal issue. In fact, as I write this, the blog currently on my website, published just last week and titled “Continuing the fight against sexual assault,” outlines some of the latest steps as part of an ongoing process.

But right now I am hearing from a number of survivors of sexual assault and their supporters questioning Michigan State University’s sincerity due to the scheduled appearance of George Will as a commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient. These survivors are expressing dismay and distress that needs to be addressed.

It is important for our students and all members of the Spartan community to understand clearly what George Will’s upcoming visit to campus means—and what it does not.

The decision to invite Mr. Will was made early this spring, well before the publication of his June 6 column titled “Colleges become the victims of progressivism,” which included statements about sexual assault that many found offensive. In fact, the early spring invitation was extended in the spirit of recognizing diverse viewpoints: We had confirmed the attendance of Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker known for such works as Capitalism: A Love Story and Fahrenheit 9/11, as the commencement speaker for the afternoon ceremony and so decided to invite Mr. Will to speak in the morning.

Mr. Will is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose Washington Post column has been syndicated since 1974 and appears in more than 450 newspapers. He has a number of published books and is a commentator on several television networks. Some years ago, he served as a lecturer for a semester here at James Madison College. MSU’s invitation to Mr. Will to speak at commencement was based on his long and distinguished journalistic career.

I earned my PhD in 1974, the same year his column was first syndicated. My life’s work has been dedicated to Michigan State University—to its people and the impact they make in the world. George Will is not our first controversial speaker at MSU, and he will undoubtedly not be our last. Over the years we have heard from many controversial commencement speakers—some who were controversial when they were invited, others who became controversial after our invitation was accepted. We’ve heard from Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson and Desmond Tutu and Elie Weisel.

So what does it mean that Michigan State University invited George Will to speak? And more importantly, what does maintaining this invitation, even in the face of calls to rescind it because of disagreement over views and values and real distress for some members of our community mean?

I’ll leave it to Mr. Will to defend his comments and values, because this isn’t about George Will. This is about us. And it is about the role of universities in a democratic society.

Having George Will speak at commencement does not mean I or Michigan State University agree with or endorse the statements he made in his June 6 column or any particular column he has written. It does not mean the university wishes to cause survivors of sexual assault distress. And it does not mean we are backing away from our commitment to continuously improving our response to sexual assault.

What it does mean is this: Great universities are committed to serving the public good through creating the space for discourse and exchange of ideas, though that exchange may be uncomfortable and will sometimes challenge values and beliefs. There is no mandate to agree, only to serve society by allowing learning to take place. If universities do not hold onto this, we do not serve the greater good. Because next time it will be a different speaker and a different issue, and the dividing lines will not be the same.

Holding this value in no way diminishes the value we place on student safety or our commitment to continue our efforts against sexual assault on this campus. We will continue to bring the issue into the light. Nothing changes that.

As I wrote in my blog last week, the recently formed Sexual Assault Task Force had its first meeting in mid-November. It has been charged with reviewing university programs and initiatives to identify ways the university can further reduce the occurrence of relationship violence and sexual misconduct and increase reporting when it occurs. The Task Force also will develop a campus climate study on sexual assault. Today, the university is issuing its first comprehensive report on sexual assault, providing all members of our community with more comprehensive information.

Recognizing that George Will’s visit will be painful for many, I have asked the Task Force to convene a town hall meeting as early as possible next semester to allow members of the campus community to share thoughts following this weekend’s commencement, as well as to offer perspectives and approaches for addressing sexual assault and its impact on our community.

Ultimately, I believe in the strength of adhering to our values. We cannot trade one for another. We can affirm and support the expression of multiple perspectives and continue our work against sexual assault, all while Mr. Will comes to our campus, speaks, and then departs. Because at MSU, we are not just a good public university. We are a “public good” university. Choosing the former is easier. But it is in working through times of challenge and controversy that we ensure the latter prevails.

-President Lou Anna K. Simon