February 22, 2018
To the campus community:
In recent days, I have been reflecting on the hate speech and bias incidents that so many American college campuses, including our own, have continued to confront. Most recently, a neighboring SUNY institution, SUNY Plattsburgh, has been rocked by a deeply offensive social media post that revived angst and memories of a painful chapter in our nation’s history.
SUNY Plattsburgh is a campus not all that different from ours, in a North Country community similar in many ways to ours. To see such an incident hurting so many people there reminds me of the past hate crimes and bias incidents we have encountered here at Potsdam, and of just how far we have to go in this country to combat racism.
Bias, discrimination and hate speech are abhorrent and intolerable here, and at any institution of higher education. No student should feel unsafe in our classrooms or on our campus. For that matter, no professor or employee should feel unsafe coming to work, and no one should feel targeted because of who they are or what they believe.
So, what can we do? I believe more strongly than ever that the best thing we can do as students, educators and individuals is to embrace the transformative power of education to change cultures and to change lives.
It is easy to be cynical, to say that we can only achieve so much through dialogue and training, that we cannot change a national culture from where we sit on one campus. Social change takes time. Yet as leader of an educational institution, I must return again and again to the power of education.
Education can change hearts and minds. Education brings people together. Education reveals new and unexpected viewpoints. Education fosters self-reflection, empathy and understanding. While it may take time—more often than not, far longer than we would like—I have to hold my faith in the transformative power of education in helping to drive change.
We must never stop working to better ourselves and our community. We must listen to and look out for each other. We must learn to understand each other, and to embrace each other’s unique qualities, backgrounds and experiences. We must focus on the change we can foster here—no matter how difficult that can be, and no matter how long it may take—and in that way create an example for the region and our nation.
SUNY Potsdam is a place where people come to learn, to teach, to grow. We strive to create a safe, welcoming and inclusive campus community where we can all come together in the pursuit of knowledge and common goals.
Next week, we will come together through the Days of Reflection, and we will share progress on our strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion. I ask you to actively contribute to our campus goals laid out in the strategic plan, and to participate in initiatives to further these goals.
The Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has made extraordinary progress in investigating bias-related incidents over the last three years, creating a process for restorative justice and developing new programs to bring people together and continue to educate our campus community. We have come a long way, and I have faith that if we keep working at these efforts, together, we will indeed change our campus culture for the better.
In these difficult times, the best thing we can do is lean on, and learn from, one another. I look forward to doing just that with all of you.
Kristin G. Esterberg, Ph.D.