Celebration of Diversity Remarks 2016
Robert J. Jones, Chancellor
November 11, 2016
Good morning and thanks to everyone for coming out this morning to honor those who will be receiving awards for their leadership and commitment to diversity and overall, to celebrate our collective efforts to make the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and our surrounding community a national model of inclusive excellence at a world class comprehensive university.
I want to start my comments by recognizing that today’s event falls on Veteran’s Day. And as most of you know, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a campus with a very long, rich tradition of providing educational opportunities to those who have served our country, and we’re very proud to see that continues to a critical aspect of the academic experience today. And there is no other university in the country that has a program that can compare to the one we have in our Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education. It was one of the elements that really attracted me to Illinois. Honoring our veterans and making sure we in higher education are working to provide them support and opportunity is very personal issue to me, as I have a son serving in the Marine Corps and daughter who will be serving in the (Army) Medical Corps. This year, Illinois was again honored as one of the best colleges in the country for vets. We plan for that recognition to continue as an annual badge of honor. Thank you to all of those veterans in the audience today for your service and your sacrifice.
I was invited to speak this morning as the new chancellor to talk about my story, my path to Illinois and to begin to offer you some ideas about my vision and goals around diversity and inclusive excellence. Because as many of you know this work has been at the core of my academic career both as a faculty member and as an administrator.
But, that was before Tuesday’s election and before the unfolding of the reactions to the results that we’ve seen play out here and at universities around the nation and the world.
Some of you may have seen my statement on Wednesday.
I attempted to point out that for more than 200 years, every one of our presidential elections has reminded us that there is ground to cover and often to be re-plowed before we truly live up to the aspirations in the name of our nation – the United States of America. Due to the long, divisive tenor and tone of the campaign, I know that many of us are left afraid and uncertain about the future.
As a product of southwestern Georgia and the son of sharecroppers who grew up during the Civil Rights movement, I know what it is like to live with racism on a daily basis. So, to be honest, I too have concerns for our future.
But, I ask all of us to take a deep breath and to remember that election results don’t define us as individuals. We define ourselves by how we choose to act and how we decide to respond in challenging times.
I’m not here as a republican, democrat or independent. I’m not here to debate who won or lost this week. We will have a new president in 70 days, and that is a fact. An election is a single point in time – and for 2016 that day that has come and gone. We have cast our votes, and now we must start to think strategically about how we will continue to advance our collective goals around inclusive excellence and diversity here at our university.
We cannot control nor change the outcome of the election.
We can control what we as individuals and as a community choose to do tomorrow and the next day and the next and the next.
The fact that there are some deep and painful divisions in our country – deep and painful divisions in our state and even in this community – is indisputable. Whether those gaps are around race, immigration, ideology, or economic opportunity – they are real and they too often manifest in ways that do not seek to find ways to bridge differences, but instead to amplify and to exploit them.
There are those who would say events like this one today celebrating our efforts around diversity and inclusion are, in fact, contributors to these disruptions. That these events are, themselves, divisive.
As far as I’m concerned, that is a blatant hijacking of some of the fundamental principles that underlie the founding of our nation and most certainly are the bedrock principles on which our own land-grant university was established one hundred fifty years ago.
Over the past couple of years – and certainly over the very long course of this presidential campaign – the rhetoric, tone and language we’ve experienced has contributed to a polarizing of beliefs and more significantly, could lead to a to a paralyzing of our progress.
We cannot – we must not – allow this to happen. That is our individual and collective responsibility as a university and a community.
These disputes and debates that we’ve seen play out seem to have little interest in offering solutions or even in opening up rudimentary exchanges of differing viewpoints. Instead, they seem focused on distracting our attention and our energy from taking actions that help bring us together, even around difficult and uncomfortable topics. They seem to seek to replace substantive, thoughtful and empathetic discussions and disagreements with name calling and shouting.
If we cannot even talk about our differences and how they impact our society – how they impact us in our daily lives – how will we ever be able to move forward?
And now, we in this room and across this campus have some choices we can make.
We can be angry. We can be disappointed. We can even be fearful.
But, what we cannot do is give up and stop engaging. We cannot bury ourselves in our fears and disappointment nor in our books and scholarship and jobs.
In the weeks, months and years post this election, we can stand up together and demonstrate by our words and more critically, by our actions, that diversity and differences don’t divide us. But instead, they bring us together and let us accomplish things that others imagine to be impossible.
We must work harder here and commit even more resolutely to see that the University of Illinois is an institution where we don’t measure diversity, inclusion and excellence by numbers or quotas or by what color your skin may be.
We measure it by the transformative experiences our students have when they choose to join this family. We are preparing them to be leaders who will be more thoughtful and who will champion the value of diversity to our society.
We measure it in the discoveries and innovations that come from our scholars and researchers who themselves have come to Illinois from every walk of life and from around the world.
I’m not saying we all have to “get along” or that we aren’t going to have plenty of robust disagreements about significant issues along the way. If these gaps and these divides were easy to resolve, we wouldn’t be standing here having these conversations.
But that’s what great universities are supposed to be doing. We solve problems the rest of the world doesn’t even want to acknowledge exist.
And the only way we have been able to do that for 150 years and the only way we will be able to do it for the next 150 years, is if we have every single perspective and every single idea on the table.
Diversity and inclusive excellence aren’t about leaving people or viewpoints behind – they are about bringing them all together in one place and at one time.
We need to be the model for what that looks like for our state and our nation. Maybe more so today than ever before.
Today’s event is meant to be a celebration of diversity and a celebration of inclusive excellence.
And that’s what we should be doing this morning – celebrating the accomplishments of our friends, neighbors and colleagues through words and music and fellowship.
These are the days I talked about earlier.
The ones when we demonstrate our convictions and define ourselves by our actions.
We define ourselves by what we do for one another – even if there’s no spotlight or microphone or televised audience. Like our students who took the Quad Wednesday not to protest an election result or argue, but just to build solidarity and stand together in a time of fear and uncertainty.
We define ourselves by what we say and what we do. And the audience gathered right here in this room says an awful lot about this university and this community.
Look at the 300 of us gathered here. We don’t all look alike, we come from different places, we speak with different accents and we worship in different ways and venues. But right here, right now, we aren’t here to talk about what makes us different.
We’re here to talk about what we share in common.
We’re here to applaud – to applaud and speak proudly – how those differences make us a stronger community and a better university.
We don’t control what happens in our elections. But we sure as heck control how we choose to move forward together in the days, weeks, months and years that follow them.
And at Illinois, I am absolutely committed to doing everything in my power to make sure that we aren’t just a place that talks about being a community that advances inclusive excellence and the values diversity.
We will continue to be a university that believes these to be a core and fundamental truths.
And we will redouble our commitment to be a place that makes the rest of the world stand up and take notice of what can happen when you do that.
This is a day for us to celebrate. And tomorrow is our chance to get right back at the hard work it takes to keep all of us moving forward toward these critically important goals.
And as we move forward together, we will always, clearly and loudly articulate this:
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will not tolerate racism.
We will not tolerate bigotry.
And we will never tolerate violence in our community.