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LETTER FROM THE PRESIDENT: Fighting back against bigotry

University President Robert L. Barchi says Rutgers prides itself on being one of the most diverse universities in the country, and that people must denounce bigotry whenever it occurs.
University President Robert L. Barchi says Rutgers prides itself on being one of the most diverse universities in the country, and that people must denounce bigotry whenever it occurs.

Normalizing bigotry and mainstreaming hateful speech, whether by a professor on a private Facebook account or the President of the United States for all the world to see, has to stop.

A few weeks ago, reports broke that a Rutgers professor had posted hateful and bigoted comments about the Jewish community on his Facebook page. His page contained a series of posts that I believe perpetuate reprehensible lies and stereotypes about Judaism that are as old and hateful as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The resultant public outcry is, to me, both justified and understandable, especially when it comes from our Jewish students, who are fearful of discrimination in the classroom. We are formally investigating whether this professor has violated university policy.

I wish I could say such hatemongering was limited to a few professors and websites across the U.S. and beyond. But earlier this week, the President of the United States re-tweeted inflammatory videos denigrating Muslims. These videos, which had already been broadly discredited, perpetuate toxic stereotypes of followers of Islam. His posts were made on his personal Twitter account, with over 43 million followers, and amplified by international media coverage. Muslims in our community have been understandably shaken by the messages President Trump has sent and are concerned about the effect on their personal safety and security.

Clear-thinking leaders from around the globe have condemned the President’s action. Our country’s closest and most reliable allies have rejected the spurious tweets of our nation’s leader.

At our 250th anniversary commencement in 2016, President Obama reminded us that “America converges here.” At Rutgers University, we pride ourselves on being one of the most diverse universities in America, with large populations of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian students—among many other groups. We are a true mosaic of people, cultures, and faiths from across America and from around the world.

Unfortunately, in the age of social media, it has never been easier for people, whether a college professor or the President of the United States, to attempt to divide us by spreading bigotry. This damages our communities, and it demands our response. Will we simply allow this speech to stand and be swallowed up by the next news cycle, or will we speak out?

We must denounce such behavior whenever it occurs. While the First Amendment may protect vile comments, it also gives each of us the right to say, “Your speech is repugnant, your thinking is wrong-headed, and we reject it completely.”

It is time for some humanity and good judgment in our public discourse. Just because you can say it, doesn’t mean you should say it. Just because speech is protected doesn’t mean it is right. Just because it can be said doesn’t mean it won’t cause harm.

From the moment that our professor’s statements were reported, I condemned them, just as I condemn the retweets by the President. I hope you will join me in that condemnation. As we see hatred spread to millions over the course of milliseconds, we all have an obligation to stand and be heard.

Rutgers is a special place. It is known for grit as much as for diversity. For more than 250 years it has been home to some of the best thinking in America. Since before the American Revolution, Rutgers has led this nation.

So the challenge of leadership—to counter reckless speech with civility and sincerity, to replace hatred with humanity, and to embrace America’s greatness—is once again laid at our feet. We will meet the challenge. 

Robert L. Barchi is the president of Rutgers University. 

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