Columnist Nancy Grossman: UMass takes a stand against hatred

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The immense banners hung off the sides of the Fine Arts Center: Reject Hatred. Stand United. Hate Has No Home at UMass. Except that “hate” was all lower-case, and everything else was capitalized. The banners echoed the stickers on our complimentary snack bags, received earlier in the day.

I had just moved my son into his first-year dorm at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, had lunch with him and his new roommate’s family, and wandered over to Haigis Mall, next to the Fine Arts Center, for the family-welcome activities. The banners were impossible to miss.

With the start of this school year, UMass launched a new campaign for civility and inclusion, amplifying the university’s long-standing commitment to diversity and its current “diversity matters” initiative. Several weeks before move-in, in response to this summer’s white nationalist rally and accompanying violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy had emailed the entire university community, including incoming students, reaffirming “UMass Amherst’s commitment to ensuring a safe and welcoming living-learning environment for every member of our campus community” and calling on all “to reject hatred in all its forms and to stand united in defense of tolerance, diversity, and inclusion.”

The message is timely. With 30 percent of the incoming class African-American, Latino, Asian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander or Native American, and with the nation’s current anything-goes climate of social discourse and increased incidents of hate speech and actions, the chancellor’s message sets a tone — here is what we stand for, and here is the standard of conduct and maturity that we expect from all members of our community.

I can imagine that first-year jitters were eased just a little bit, both for students of color and for anyone concerned with issues of social justice and civility. And, frankly, parents of all ethnic backgrounds want to know: Where does the university come down on important issues of the day? Are you promoting important values or sitting quietly on the sidelines? And will my unique child be welcome here?

Despite the concerns of some, clarifying community standards is not about shutting down free speech. Rather, the question is about when speech becomes pejorative. UMass has concurrently declared its commitment to “academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas,” as an administrator stated during the university’s recent Family Weekend. As one of the parent attendees said, “At the end of the day, it’s all about respect.”

Progressive values are part of the reason my son decided to attend UMass Amherst. On new-student acceptance day in April, while still weighing his educational options, we listened as the dean of what would become his future department made a point of mentioning several times the importance to him of equity and diversity. That contrasted sharply with a similar presentation by a department chair at another university a day earlier that included a reference to the unattractiveness of the several women in his college engineering class, back in the day. You know, welcome, future women of science. That the chair never considered for a moment the inappropriateness of such a “joke” to the parents of potential students spoke volumes about the relative unimportance of an inclusive climate at that school. Or that the message had somehow not filtered down to the faculty, for better or worse.

It wasn’t the sole deciding factor in my son’s college decision — the other university had some appealing features — but we came to think of that school as “provincial” and UMass Amherst as, like we had always known it to be, “in tune with the times.” And these times call for taking a stand on issues of social justice and equity.

Implicit in Chancellor Subbaswamy’s message: Whoever you are, you are welcome here, and we expect you to extend that same acceptance to others who might be different from yourself. We call on everyone to be their highest self, for we are better people when we open our hearts to welcome and include. Diversity makes us stronger, because we need all voices at the table to meet today’s most pressing challenges. Bigotry and hatred demean everyone. If you bring those attitudes here, you might just want to spend some time reevaluating your point of view, because, hey, we are trying to make this place work for everyone.

Kudos to the chancellor and the UMass community for their unequivocal leadership on this critical issue.

Nancy Grossman, a University of Massachusetts Amherst parent and alumna, lives in Leverett.