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A message to students concerning the October 13 rally at EKU

Keen Johnson and Daniel Boone Statue

Dear EKU Students:

As an outcome from a Tuesday evening conversation with many of our underrepresented and minority students, I wanted to share a few thoughts relative to the visit this weekend by President Donald J. Trump for a planned rally at Alumni Coliseum, which his campaign is renting.

First off, I thank the students who came to voice their concerns Tuesday night. I heard you. My colleagues heard you. You spoke with passion and conviction and emotion, and I thank you for your forthrightness and courage.

Our primary responsibility is to our students and creating an environment where they can be successful: academically, socially, intellectually, and personally. And an environment where they can feel safe physically.

What this means is that we will do everything within our power to create, maintain, and sustain that physically safe environment, and we will always work to foster an environment of mutual respect in accordance with our policies against harassment and discrimination. What we cannot guarantee is that you are shielded from comments, expressions or even language which you find hurtful or offensive.

At a recent speech to students at the University of Chicago, Van Jones — an African-American attorney, CNN contributor, and former advisor to President Barack Obama — put it succinctly:

“I don't want you to be safe, ideologically. I don't want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That's different. . . I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you in these communities.”

Second, to all those who are excited about and are looking forward to the imminent visit of President Trump to our campus, it is important to recognize you have the freedom to express your political beliefs. I also urge you to be mindful of the feelings within our community that diverge with your own and with those of the President.

Be kind. Be respectful. Be accepting. Be different, but also be tolerant.

Be open to the viewpoints of others and exemplify the best characteristics of humanity. Let’s show each other, and the world, how to lead with compassion, understanding and grace. The way you behave and comport yourselves will reflect on our institution, as thousands will watch what you do and hear what you say.

The religious tradition in which I was raised teaches me to treat others the way I would like to be treated myself. Since I was a child, my parents and teachers inculcated in me this primary sense of decency and respect for ALL people, regardless of their race, background, orientation, or political views. It is what my wife and I are trying to instill in our own children.

As it relates to both policy and practice, the University leases its spaces – including Alumni Coliseum – to individuals, organizations and corporations on a non-discriminatory basis. We cannot make decisions on who can and cannot rent University facilities based on personal beliefs or opinions, regardless of whether they differ from my own as an individual.   However, just because some of my personal views may differ with the President, as they have with other speakers on this campus, I must defend his right — as well as every other American in this democratic republic of ours — to say whatever he or anyone else in our country wishes. A statement, attributed to the famous French philosopher Voltaire says it best: “I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Third, let me state unequivocally that we, as a public institution supported by the taxpayers of Kentucky, believe in the fundamental bedrock principles enumerated in the First Amendment, including the “freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This commitment to free speech, regardless of how offensive it might be or how upsetting to our core beliefs and principles, is immutable. And it is inescapably linked to academic freedom and what universities are all about.

In conclusion, in coming days and weeks I intend to convene different groups — students, faculty, staff, community members — to come back together and discuss what we have learned from this experience and how we move forward as an institution. The event this Saturday neither defines who we are nor what we stand for, but it can provide a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other, to buoy each other up, and to stand for our own principled perspectives — always mindful of others and respectful of differing opinions.

Thank you for your continued commitment to Eastern Kentucky University.

Yours sincerely,

Michael T. Benson

Published on October 11, 2018

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