UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls

culture fest

When Core Values Matter Most

Thursday, August 24, 2017 | by Dean Van Galen

In the coming days, we will welcome over 6,000 students to the UW-River Falls campus. It’s a time of excitement, opportunity, and certainly some anxiety for the students. I have been thinking about the academic year ahead and the larger societal issues that dominate the news and many of our conversations these days. As I look around the country from Charlottesville to other college campuses, like Texas A&M and the University of Florida, I believe that principles and values have never been more important. I also believe that a university campus is neither an island nor an ivory tower, but a community significantly impacted by, and in some ways reflecting, the larger society in which we live. 

With this in mind, as we begin our 142nd academic year at UW-River Falls, I want to reassure the community of our firm commitment to our six core values:

  • Student Centered
  • Academic Excellence
  • Inclusiveness
  • Innovation
  • Global Engagement
  • Integrity

More can be learned on our website about all of these values, and how they translate to living out our educational mission at UW-River Falls.  One core value in particular merits special attention right now, and that is our value of inclusiveness:

We commit to a community of mutual respect, professional behavior, academic freedom and appreciation of individual differences and rich cultural diversity.

This statement reaffirms our commitment to a campus environment where there is an open, respectful, free exchange of ideas, including ideas that may differ from our own. It is also a statement that we believe diversity and difference, in their many forms, enhance the learning environment at our university. A UWRF education must include learning through encountering and thinking critically about a range of perspectives. This occurs by interacting in respectful ways with diverse people, including and especially those who hold views that are different from our own, or are new to us. Each of us, administrators, faculty, staff and students alike, must strive to make this sometimes challenging effort, embracing every opportunity to learn more about ourselves, as we learn more about others.

While free speech and the robust exchange of diverse ideas on the campus of a public university must be allowed and even encouraged, we need to provide an environment for respectful exchanges informed by research and knowledge to foster dialogue and build understanding. As chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, let me be clear:  racist and anti-Semitic ideologies are directly opposed to our core values. The expression of any ideologies in threatening and violent ways will never be tolerated on our campus, as we will never compromise the safety of the members of our campus community.

In my desk drawer, I have a small notebook that was given to me on Dec. 19, 1990, by Rebecca Brewer, a former chemistry student of mine. Over the years, I have jotted my favorite quotes in that notebook, especially for wisdom during difficult times. I share this quote from my notebook, by Nelson Mandela: 

 “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love...” 

In line with this emphasis on the role of learning and teaching, I wish to share with you a portion of a message I plan to send to all of our students as they return to campus:

I want you to know that UW-River Falls is a wonderful place to pursue an education, build relationships, and earn a high-quality college degree. It is a place that values diversity in people and ideas. Community is important here—which does not mean that the ideas or political views of people within our community are, or should be, the same. But it does mean that we seek to express and understand our differences in thoughtful ways that do not denigrate or “tear down” others. During your time at UWRF, it is important that you take advantage of the many opportunities we provide to interact with people from different backgrounds and experiences, both inside and outside the classroom, from everyday life on campus, to study abroad opportunities around the globe. These opportunities to interact across difference will enable you to develop relationships with other students, faculty and staff, especially those who have life stories and perspectives very different from your own. In your classes, you may also encounter ideas that are new or challenging, and I invite you to remain open to the opportunities that your faculty provide to look at things in new or different ways. All of these experiences will help to clarify your own core values, prepare you for work and citizenship, and truly shape your life.

American higher education has always played an important role in challenging our nation to question and clarify our actions, principles and core values. Today, more than ever, I believe that education can help move us from a society where “us vs. them” often leads to misperceptions and even violence, and where the vestiges of racism and discrimination in all their forms continue to haunt us, toward a society of greater civil communication, understanding and acceptance for all. I feel this is especially true when that education is guided by core values such as those we hold at UW-River Falls.