Office of the President
November 7, 2023

Remarks at Nov. 7, 2023 faculty meeting on campus safety, harassment and discrimination, and academic freedom

From the President

In the last month, we have all been consumed with and horrified by the news of the terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas on October 7, the subsequent war and humanitarian disaster in Gaza, increases in violence in the West Bank, and the threat of further spread of violence to other areas of the Middle East. The loss of life—of Israelis, Palestinians, and people of other nationalities and backgrounds who have been swept up in the violence—is heartbreaking. 

As you know, the crisis has resulted in activism and discord on university campuses across the country. Activism on college campuses is not new, but the current crisis is distinctive in that it is pitting members of university communities against each other and seeding anxiety and tension. 

In a time like this, it’s essential that our actions as a community are grounded in our mission of advancing knowledge and understanding within a caring and inclusive community. 

As we work through the challenges of this time, my focus is on four priorities: 

1) Keeping the campus safe. Violence, and threats of violence, have increased nationally, including on college campuses. We are taking extensive steps to protect our campus, consulting regularly with local, state and federal law enforcement. We pledge to do all we can to support members of our community who experience threats to their safety. 

2) Providing care and empathy to affected members of our community. Some Brown students, faculty and staff have been directly affected by the crisis, and are fearful for the lives and welfare of family and friends in the region. They deserve our care. In recent weeks students and employees have received communications with information about support resources. 

I’d be glad to address questions anyone has about campus safety and support during the Q&A, but in my remarks I will focus on the last two priorities: 

3) Taking the strongest possible stance against bias, harassment and discrimination, including antisemitism and anti-Muslim/Arab racism. 

4) Supporting our commitment to freedom of expression within an open and respectful learning environment. 

Bias, harassment and discrimination 

Let me start by telling you what we’re seeing on campus with respect to bias, harassment and discrimination. Since October 7, Brown has seen a small but concerning uptick in troubling reports of antisemitic and anti-Muslim/Arab incidents that involve other members of the Brown community or, in some cases, actors external to Brown. Some of these incidents have involved in-person interactions, and others have occurred on social media.  

Brown has clear policies and practices that guide our response to reports of bias, harassment and discrimination. If an allegation rises to the level of a crime, our Department of Public Safety works in coordination with law enforcement agencies to investigate. Allegations that do not rise to the level of a crime but would, if substantiated, violate University policy are promptly and thoroughly addressed. 

Reports and investigations of bias, harassment and discrimination are often not visible to the campus. I want to assure you that all allegations that come forward are treated seriously. I strongly encourage all members of our community who experience bias, harassment or discrimination to come forward and make a report. 

Although we have not received many reports, even one is too many. A pernicious effect of harassment is that even a few instances sow fear and distrust, which we cannot allow to take root at Brown. Every student, faculty and staff member should be able to proudly wear a Star of David or don a keffiyeh on the Brown campus, or to cover their head with a hijab or yarmulke. No member of our community should be subject to behaviors that are abusive, threatening, intimidating or humiliating. 

I ask you to please make it clear in your conversations with students the distinction between free expression, which Brown wholeheartedly supports, and harassment and discrimination, which are unacceptable. 

I say this while recognizing that there are grey areas, uncertainty and even disagreements about where freedom of expression ends and harassment begins. Our policy makes it clear that context and the specific circumstances of each incident matter. One of our responsibilities as a university community is to probe and discuss these grey areas, even when those conversations are painful and difficult. 

Supporting our commitment to freedom of expression within an open and respectful learning environment 

Next I want to address our commitment to freedom of expression within an open and respectful learning environment. On Friday, the Provost sent an email to the entire community that answered questions we’ve received about how our policies support this commitment. 

Brown’s strong Statement on Academic Freedom, which delineates the rights of faculty and students to free expression, has served us well for over 50 years. 

The Statement says that, at Brown, faculty and students shall enjoy freedom of religious belief, speech and press; the right to association and assembly and political activity inside and outside of the classroom; and the right to petition the authorities, the public and the University. Furthermore, faculty and recognized student groups have the right to invite speakers of their choice to campus. There are guardrails on time, place and manner that ensure that protests don’t infringe on the academic freedom of others or interfere with the normal functions of the university, including teaching and research. And, of course, speech that crosses the line into harassment based on religion, nationality, race, ethnicity or other characteristics is unacceptable. 

At times it can be challenging to manage classrooms that uphold students’ rights to freedom of expression while maintaining a respectful and inclusive learning environment. Teaching on contentious issues is hard. If you are dealing with this in your own classes, I encourage you to look at the resources offered by the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. I want to thank all of you who are doing the work of fostering open and supportive teaching environments for our students in this difficult time. 

Requests for statements from the University 

Recently, I have been asked by a substantial number of Brown faculty members—many of whom I know well, and all who have my respect—to make public statements to address the current situation. 

These colleagues have expressed their condemnation of Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel and the taking of hostages, as well as their condemnation of the Israeli military’s siege and bombing of Gaza that has killed and displaced thousands of people. They have also expressed their concern that those who support Palestinian human rights have faced censorship and suppression nationally and in the media. 

One specific request of me is to affirm that members of the Brown community who support Palestinian human rights through speech or scholarship will not be intimidated, censored or punished. I agree that there should be no “Palestinian exception” to freedom of expression, and in fact I would go further: there are no exceptions to Brown’s clearly-articulated policy on academic freedom and freedom of expression for views on any issue. 

To my knowledge, no faculty member or student at Brown has experienced censorship or punishment for their views or scholarly work on the current conflict or its historical antecedents. If they have, I want to know about it. Allegations of violations to academic freedom should be promptly reported to the provost, the Faculty Executive Committee, or a relevant dean. Unresolved concerns can be addressed by the University’s Grievance Committee. 

I have also been asked to make public statements to urge lawmakers to support a ceasefire, and to publicly decry censorship and intimidation of those who support Palestinian human rights on campuses elsewhere in the country. 

I must respectfully decline making public statements on these issues. Although I occasionally engage in public advocacy on policy issues directly related to higher education and Brown (e.g. legislation affecting financial aid, DACA, etc.), it is precisely because of Brown’s commitment to academic freedom that I can’t take the actions that have been requested. 

A university is not a single person, but a community of people who hold diverse views. My responsibility, as president, is not to place a stamp of approval on the views of a subset of the community, even if that subset is large. Rather, my responsibility it is to ensure that individual members of the community are free to voice their views, including using their voices to urge lawmakers or other universities to take specific actions or, more generally, express their beliefs on matters of conscience. These are the rights that freedom of expression guarantees. 

Thank you for listening, and I look forward to our conversation on these and other important issues.