October 3, 2023

A Message From The President – February 2023

Dear UMW Community,

As we finish the first five weeks of classes and are well on our way in the spring semester, I hope you have found opportunities to embrace what you love, pursue your passions, and accomplish much of what you envisioned, with a clear pathway ahead. This month, in particular, we might reflect on what we love about Mary Washington. As Valentine’s Day approaches next week, we’re reminded how important it is to stop and pause and appreciate others – friends, acquaintances, classmates, co-workers, family, etc.  I invite you to join me in focusing on what matters, in the moment, in our community, and in the ways you interact in the world.

Throughout February, we celebrate Black History Month, featuring films, guest speakers, musical performances, dinners, panels, bake sales, karaoke, and various other programs sponsored by the James Farmer Multicultural Center. You’ll also find a variety of engagement fairs and opportunities from the upcoming internship fair sponsored by the UMW Center for Career and Professional Development. As you pursue your passions through career options, I hope you’ll also consider study abroad trips, volunteer opportunities, and on-campus employment.  There is a world of opportunities available to you from right here on campus to within the commonwealth to across the globe. Take the time to schedule an appointment with your academic advisor, mentor, supervisor, etc. and find out more about enriching your experience at UMW.

You can share your experience in small and big ways. I hope you’ll join me in sharing positive, uplifting, and kind words with one another during Random Acts of Kindness Day on February 17. On Monday, February 20, we look forward to welcoming prospective students and their families to campus for an Admissions Open House – a day filled with campus tours, student panel discussions, academic program sessions, etc.  I encourage you to welcome our visitors, answer their questions, join them for lunch in the Cedric Rucker University Center, offer directions, and even escort them to a building. It’s a small gesture that can remind each of us about what makes UMW such a wonderful place to live, learn, and grow.

I’m reminded of our important work and purpose frequently. Recently the presidents of all Virginia’s public colleges and universities made a statement about our commitment to free expression and viewpoint diversity on our campuses. Maybe you read about it in a Richmond Times-Dispatch Op-Ed late last year.  The statement concludes with a pledge “to promote and uphold inclusivity, academic freedom, free expression, and an environment that promotes civil discourse across differences.  We will protect these principles when others seek to restrict them.” As the article made clear, we felt compelled to make this statement due to the growing public distrust in higher education’s ability to cultivate robust and divergent viewpoints.  If we fail in our ability to discuss difficult topics for fear of retribution or ostracism, we cannot fulfill our educational and democratic mission.

Many constituents have a stake in what we do on our campuses: Taxpayers, elected and appointed political officials, students, alumni, faculty, staff, and employers, to name a few.  As president, I have a responsibility to keep the University’s focus on its North Star, its reason for being, especially when external and internal forces threaten to knock it off course.  Though the education we provide serves several important private and public objectives, including inculcating skills for career success, our most fundamental purpose is to teach the art of living in a free society.  It is why the first pillar of our strategic vision is a commitment to “equip students to address society’s complex challenges and to be active citizens in our pluralistic liberal democracy.”   To do this, we must teach the ability to engage in civil discourse across differences – a necessary skill for leaders and citizens of a healthy, diverse democracy.  The call to foster this ability is never more challenging or important than at times of division, polarization, and declining faith in institutions.

With that said, the last line of the presidents’ collective statement does give me pause.  How do we protect the principles of inclusivity, academic freedom, free expression, and civil discourse across differences when they are under attack?  When does speech cross the line from making someone merely uncomfortable to making them feel unsafe or unwelcomed?  Even if we can clearly draw that line, what tools do we have at our disposal to ensure it doesn’t get crossed, especially when so much of this discourse is done online, and in the case of one problematic platform, anonymously?

In my effort to protect the principles of free expression and viewpoint diversity, let me unequivocally state that there are inherent responsibilities that accompany membership in an academic community committed to open inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.  To satisfy this commitment, we must be a marketplace of ideas where multiple perspectives are shared, heard, and debated.  This is not possible if we do not operate in an environment of trust and mutual respect.  This is why we remind campus of our ASPIRE values whenever our inclusive environment is under attack.

As a community, we cannot fall victim to a threat, particularly when it comes to the safety and well-being of students and other members of our community. Targeted harassment, threats, and speech that dehumanizes and creates a hostile learning environment has a chilling effect on a free exchange of ideas every bit as much as forced adherence to any orthodoxy, doctrine, or political ideology. Discussions about when institutional practices cross the line from educational to indoctrination or when speech crosses the line from offensive or disagreeable to harassing and threatening can be challenging, complicated, and nuanced.  But these are discussions worth having, and when it is clear those lines have been crossed, we must hold each other accountable and commit to doing better.  It is only through our collective diligence and commitment to our core values and principles that we will earn the trust of those we are here to serve.

Again, it is important work that we all must share, and I trust that we will rise to the challenge. I hope you continue to learn and thrive this semester, and as we conclude the month of February, that you also have a remarkable and rejuvenating spring break – whether it’s one packed with research projects, travel abroad or internships, or simply one that provides you a chance to recharge and spend much-needed time with friends and family.

All the best,

Troy Paino