Editor's note: UT System Chancellor McRaven sent academic and health institution presidents the following letter on Aug. 16, 2017.
In 1977, when I was commissioned as an Ensign, the Navy’s tagline was, “Join the Navy and See the World.” Well, I can tell you that the Navy kept its promise. After 37 years of service, I sailed the seven seas, visited over 90 countries and met with people of every conceivable culture and background. What became clear in my travels was the universality of humanity: not the things that separated us, but things that bound us together.
In every culture I encountered, life, above all, was precious. It was the condition necessary for everything else. That may not seem very profound, but to those who struggled to survive on a daily basis, life had a special meaning.
All great cultures placed a premium on respect. Respect for one’s elders. Respect for the laws of the community. Respect for the symbols and the traditions that tied the culture together. But respect was not a birthright. Even the monarchs and village chieftains had to earn their respect if they hoped for a long rule.
Dignity, however, did not have to be earned. It was granted by society, even to the poor and disenfranchised. The great cultures understood the inequities of life. Some were born fortunate, other not. Dignity allowed every individual an opportunity to rise above their circumstances.
Not every universal quality I experienced was good, however. I found that when life was cheap, when respect and dignity were in short supply, when the conventions of society fell apart, even the oldest of cultures resorted to hatred and violence as a means of expressing their frustration and outrage.
As I watched the events of Charlottesville unfold, it heightened my concern that as a nation, we are losing sight of our common humanity, of the bonds that bring us together. Some, who are lost in a world of hatred, bigotry and violence, are focusing on our differences and not our commonalities. Those bent on destruction chose to separate themselves from the well-intentioned populous. They separate themselves because they are afraid. They are afraid because they lack the understanding, the empathy and the acceptance that comes from a worldly experience. They haven’t witnessed the simple wisdom of a village elder in Afghanistan. They haven’t seen the dedication of a young Nigerian girl, walking miles to a one-room school house. They must not know or appreciate the history of the great Arab mathematicians, the Jewish scientists, the European artists, the African musicians, the Asian merchants, or the literary giants from Latin America.
As educators, we have a special responsibility to our society. There is an expectation that all our schooling has given us great intellect and experience. There is an expectation that our leadership will be strong in challenging times. There is an expectation that we will teach the next generation — and that the next generation will be better than we are. There is an expectation that education will bring progress, and progress will bring us closer to a society that lives in harmony, with itself and with the world. And, most of all, there is an expectation that, as presidents and chancellors, we will protect those in our care; that we have a sacred obligation to the parents who trusted us with that which they treasure the most.
As the fall semester approaches and the specter of discontent is rising, I want all of you to know my position. First, we will value life and limb over any and all other liberties. The safety of our students, faculty and employees will be paramount. I will work with you in every way possible to ensure you have the legal authority necessary to protect those in your care. On the issue of safety, I will not compromise. The lawyers know where to find me.
We will respect the law, the lawmakers, and keepers of the law. Among our students and faculty, we will encourage lifelong discovery, vigorous debate and peaceful dissent, for they are the cornerstones of academic freedom and our democracy. We will never shy away from the difficult issues that face our society, but we will not allow our campuses to be safe havens or temporary resting places for those who seek to undermine our responsibility to the public good.
We will endeavor, at all times, to be welcoming, tolerant, understanding, and helpful. We will treat everyone with dignity, unless their behavior compromises the safety of our students or our academic mission. As leaders, we will inspire confidence in the public through our words and actions. Everything we do will be moral, legal and ethical, and we will stand by our convictions that universities are places for learning and growing, not places for subjugation of decency and the human spirit.
I want to thank each one of you for the incredible job you do every day. It is my honor to serve with you!