Reflections on Last Week's Tragic Events

President Williams writes to the Muhlenberg Community

Tuesday, July 12, 2016 11:45 AM

The headline of a recent issue of The Economist magazine reads “Divided we fall.” It refers to the future of Britain and Europe, but could as easily be referring to racial relations here in America.

The fatal shootings last week of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota were tragic reminders of our discussions on campus this past year regarding justice and inclusion. Our community has been focused on the issues surrounding such tragic events evidencing bias and racism in our nation, both in distant locales as well as here on our own campus and in the surrounding community. These tragic killings bring that pain and anguish back to us all, particularly to our students, faculty and staff of color.

This is a crucial moment for each of us to embrace and draw strength from the fact that none of us stands alone; we are all part of a caring community committed to ending racial injustice. As we endeavor together to build a more equitable and just institution here at Muhlenberg, we are engaged in work to dismantle any and all vestiges of institutional racism within our community. The horrors of not only these most recent killings, but the many thousands that have preceded them over our nation’s history bring pain and despair to all caring people. This is a moment for all of us to move closer towards one another; not to become more distant.

The sniper attack in Dallas that killed five police officers and wounded seven more was no less tragic and reprehensible. We are all outraged and saddened by all the shootings of this past week, including both the senseless, police-linked killings of yet two more black men as well as the premeditated attack on police officers. We remain confident our nation can do better and are committed to a path of change; a path based on social justice where no one is judged by the color of their skin. As we see so many tragic events unfold, many of us are understandably feeling despair and wondering how we can put an end to this cycle of hatred begetting more hatred.

The evidence of longstanding racial bias and inequality in our criminal justice system and in other institutions is overwhelming. The pernicious effects of such bias on people of color throughout our nation have been devastating over centuries now. The images of white police officers acting with insufferable cruelty to enforce racist Jim Crow laws not much more than 50 years ago are seared into our collective memory and are part of the frame for more recent events. At the same time, the extraordinarily difficult and dangerous work performed by police officers whose duty it is to run towards the danger in order to protect the rest of us is also clear. Just as campus safety officers should not presume that a young man of color walking across campus is not a student, no one should presume that a police or campus safety officer is governed by racist impulses.

Our Muhlenberg community is formed around a commitment to education and collegiality. The liberal arts stand in rejection of bias, hatred and violence in favor of knowledge, truth and equity. As we evolve as an educational institution, we strive to ensure that all Muhlenberg students feel equally at home in our learning community and are equally able to take full advantage of our educational resources. We acknowledge that work is ongoing and much remains to be done; but we are moving forward. We are fully committed to realizing excellence in this dimension of our community.

We are engaged in ongoing discussions, in which we will find new and increasingly effective ways to have difficult conversations that are essential to building the trust and mutual understanding that are the most essential foundations of community. These conversations must continue when we all come back together on campus next month.

The President’s Diversity Advisory Council – formed last year and chaired by Dr. James Peck, Muhlenberg’s associate dean for diversity initiatives, with representation from the faculty, students, staff and alumni – is charged with assessing our progress and formulating recommendations regarding our action agenda. I will continue to work with Associate Dean Peck and the Council to shape our core initiatives throughout the 2016-2017 academic year and beyond to achieve the goals set out in our Diversity Strategic Plan. In addition, we will work together to identify and move forward to achieve those additional goals that are needed for us to realize the objective of making Muhlenberg College one of the nation’s most embracing and supportive undergraduate institutions for students of any race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation who have the ability and desire to succeed here both academically and as a contributing member of our mutually-supportive community.

By continuing this work at Muhlenberg, we will further strengthen our potential to develop future leaders who in the years ahead will help to bring about a more just and civil society with liberty and justice for all.

This goal is one we can achieve only by working together. United, we rise.