On Wednesday, the day after I spoke in favor of advancing Senator John Thrasher to the final round of FSU’s presidential search during the meeting of the search advisory committee, a colleague thanked me for speaking up. He said there were other professors who shared my opinion but who were unwilling to say so publicly.
The more I pondered this comment, the more concerned I became about the long-term impact of the presidential search on our community of scholars. I’m not going to argue here that there are hundreds of professors who support the Thrasher candidacy. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that there are only two in addition to me, three of us altogether. I was obviously not too afraid to speak up, although I confessed to several colleagues afterward that I had been more nervous than I had been in front of a group in a long time. But if I have colleagues that are afraid to speak up, then that is bad for our institution.
A university like ours can only be a nurturing learning community for its students if the faculty makes it a priority to maintain an open, tolerant environment for dissenting opinions. If even one faculty member feels socially intimidated enough to conclude there is too big a price to pay for speaking her or his mind on an important issue – and the selection of a new President certainly qualifies – then that is one faculty member too many. In such a situation, all of us need to examine ourselves and our community and to make changes in the way we discuss and debate issues. There is no excuse for social intimidation at a university.
I’ve certainly sent my share of blistering e-mails to colleagues and administrators during my time here. But those were on matters that concerned the future of students and educational priorities. And once those disputes were settled (and I lose more often than I win), I considered them closed and past.
The next few weeks will be an important test for FSU. The selection of a new president is important, but it pales in comparison to the decision we will have to make as a faculty about the sort of community we would like to have. Are we going to maintain the FSU tradition of working hard to find ways to get along with each other? Or are we going to allow the rips that have formed in the fabric of our community during the last few months to remain? This is too important a decision to leave to a few vocal colleagues. We all need to decide for ourselves what needs to be done, and then we have to summon the courage to do it.