Rising Above

No university president welcomes unproductive controversy, but when it happens, you have two choices. You can ignore it until it festers, or you face it head on. This year, we stared it straight in the face.

It was just a year ago, in IUP Magazine, that I said campuses across the country have become battlegrounds for issues related to the First Amendment. In fact, that same edition of the magazine featured the story, “Speak Out, Listen Up,” which provided readers with coverage and an honest look at related circumstances at IUP.

Since then, the IUP community has dug into the issues during what we’ve referred to as the Year of Free Speech. As a public university, IUP is obligated to uphold the tenets of the First Amendment, regardless of the offending rhetoric’s flavor at any given time. Our aim has been to make students understand that those with opposing viewpoints have the right to say anything they want. Likewise, we want our students to recognize that just because they can say anything doesn’t mean they should.

Throughout the academic year, students, faculty and staff members, and the entire surrounding community have accessed a broad spectrum of programs and viewpoints that have included appearances by Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center and Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and author of The Coddling of the American Mind. If you want to get a sense of all the programming, you can see videos of many of the presentations—including Lukianoff’s and Rosen’s—on the IUP Free Speech Project website.

It is quite likely that IUP’s Year of Free Speech could stretch into a few more years. After all, it’s our job to make sure students understand the power of their words as well as our nation’s laws. We must challenge them to rise above what they see on the mean streets of social media and the 24/7 cable cycle—that disagreeing is acceptable, but, to be effective as leaders and community members, they must disagree lawfully and through thoughtful, civil discourse. It’s a must, not only because employers demand people skills and interpersonal qualities but also because we’re in the business of shaping discerning critical thinkers and great human beings.

Transformative Moments

Willis Pratt in 1949

Willis Pratt, in 1949. Photo courtesy of IUP Special Collection and Archives. Did you know you can find in our online archives IUP yearbooks, alumni publications, and a wealth of other historical information? Visit www.iup.edu/archives.

As I prepared my commentary for the next edition of IUP Magazine, which will be distributed in April, I was prompted to consider what makes IUP the great place that it is. The spring issue will carry an article written by Randy Jesick, who has served the university for decades, first in an administrative position and then on the Journalism and Public Relations faculty. He interviewed his mentor, Sam Furgiuele, a long-retired English Department faculty member and  public relations director.

It made me think about how IUP has gotten to where we are today. I am in awe of so much of the hard work that went into shaping the strong learning community we all know and support. You surely could name at least a few people who influenced your life during your association with IUP, and I have a succession of dedicated and innovative faculty and staff members to thank for this firm foundation on which I and the entire IUP community stand right now.

To be sure, over the course of decades, they executed a series of transformative decisions that have positioned IUP for the very next steps we will take as we work toward our shared vision.

Think about this: Most people know IUP achieved university status in 1965. Did you realize that President Willis Pratt and the faculty worked together beginning in the late 1940s to transform the curriculum to a broader set of offerings than teacher training? That decision led to the establishment of a graduate school and the eventual distinction of being the only institution in what would become Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education to confer the Ph.D., in addition to a selection of applied doctoral degrees.

That’s a distinction we continue to enjoy today.

Later, in the 1990s, with the help of alumnus and philanthropist Bob Cook ’64, IUP further distinguished itself by establishing a residential honors college. While the Cook Honors College provides an intense environment that has resulted in students bringing home to IUP numerous prestigious national prizes—such as Fulbright Awards—it also has influenced academic programming across the university, inspiring more students than ever to participate in hands-on research and study-abroad opportunities. From this perspective, the decision to establish the honors college was, indeed, a transformative moment.

IUP has a responsibility to be a good steward to its host region. I view the decision to join forces with community partners, to dream big and develop, plan, and build the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex as another transformative moment. While the complex is expected to pump more than $300 million into the local economy by 2021, its worth to the university and the community is priceless—while facilitating athletics contests, conferences, commencement, and other large-entertainment events, it has become a beloved destination for the region’s residents.

I’d be delighted to hear what you think our other transformative moments have been—or what our next ones might be. Please leave a comment below and tell me what you think. After all, your philanthropic investment has helped to place IUP in a position to transform students from hopeful high school students to our world’s hope for the future.

I have invited Leadership Society members to a special reception February 22 at Kovalchick Complex in between women’s and men’s basketball games. I look forward to saying hello, but if you can’t make it, perhaps you will be able to get to IUP for our annual Leadership Society reception on April 22. Your invitation will be in the mail soon. This is one small way we can thank you for all you do for IUP.

Until then, please take a look at some of the latest news about IUP.


Where Has Civility Gone?

In a world in which rhetoric has taken a downhill turn, President Michael Driscoll discusses how IUP’s students, in the face of a negative incident, have taken the high road.

Safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses—you’ve read about them often in the last two months, which just happen to be, coincidentally, right in the middle of what many believe to be the meanest presidential campaign in recent U.S. history.

I wonder if we would be talking about safe spaces and trigger warnings at all—if they would be necessary—if the tone and tenor of public interaction were, simply, more polite.

And, I worry.

Young people are shaped by their environment, and it seems as though the Jerry Springer approach to problem solving and discourse now defines how we resolve differences.

We Americans should employ our precious right of free speech to come together and address the challenges we face. But far too often, free speech is invoked in the lesser cause of justifying name-calling, petty bickering, and the lowest of unreasoned ad hominem attacks on people rather than in protecting a debate about their ideas.

The genesis of safe spaces and trigger warnings is the basis of civility with which we are all familiar.  In our daily lives we appreciate and understand when someone says “please sit down, what I have to tell you won’t be easy for you to hear.” But safe spaces and trigger warnings as implemented and debated have often been reduced to caricatures of caring—a way to mollycoddle weak people who can’t bear the truth.

Frank discussion is important and useful, but what coarsened our culture? When did the culture of disrespect overshadow mutual respect? When did cheap sound bites overtake rich debate? Is it the instantaneous nature and faux anonymity of social media? Has the desire to create a social media trend driven a need for showmanship over substance?

Strife, fear, and heartache abound throughout our history, but through my nostalgic view of the past, I imagine that a sense of decorum and decency once prevailed in public forum and debate. At least until I read the accounts of debates in the antebellum United States or the rhetoric justifying the holocaust.  We must teach our students how to rise above the proclivity, exacerbated by today’s technology, to demean and belittle.

Some of you may have read the Spring 2016 edition of IUP Magazine, in which we explored issues related to race on campus. Our campus community, indeed, experienced an ugly incident last December. When a racist SnapChat photo was transmitted, many people were rightfully outraged, and I’m sad to say it was not an isolated case of prejudice.

But, that outrage did not reach a low level. In fact, it served as a catalyst for taking action. Since December, our community has come together in many ways over this issue. In presentations about our newly completed diversity climate study, a day-long summit in which we discussed these issues, at an open meeting in Punxsutawney, and in a wide variety of other settings, we have talked about sensitive issues, but the discourse has been respectful.  Further, I’ve seen at least one group of students reach out to our local law enforcement community to help bridge gaps. Such progress calls for candor on all sides of the table, and by all reports, that candor has not broken the barriers of civility.

That impresses me. I’ve seen our students, faculty, and staff agree and respectfully disagree—without talking over one another, without interrupting one another, without name calling, without shouting, without dirt digging, and without a cad’s put down. And no trigger warnings were required.

It happens here at IUP. It can happen elsewhere, too.

I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that watching our students tackle these issues has been a real joy, and while I worry about what’s to come in our world, our kids give me hope.