Dear Union College Community Member:
What follows immediately below is a message from Julie Greifer Swidler '79, chair of the Union College Board of Trustees. A message to the community from President Harris follows Chair Swidler’s note.
It has been 30 days since Hamas’ brutal terrorist attack. Some of us have been changed forever and there are many in our community who have been suffering.
College campuses across the country have seen rallies and violence. While our campus has its challenges, that is NOT what is happening at Union.
While some on campus are uneasy, I am still hopeful that before long we will be able to gather together to constructively discuss our different perspectives on the events of the last few weeks and others that will continue for quite a while tocome.
I have been extremely saddened by the misconceptions about what is actually happening on campus, which have started to take on a life of their own, capped off by a newspaper article last week.
Below is a statement from President Harris that includes not only his feelings about what has been happening in the world, but on campus. I urge you to read the statement in its entirety for the full picture of what is happening on campus.
The world and Union may have dark days ahead, but what we need is the support of our entire community working together to prevent raising passions unnecessarily. We will not get everything right, but please know that President Harris and his administration is focused on the wellbeing of all students.
Julie Greifer Swidler
From President Harris:
Over the past four weeks, we have witnessed horrifying acts of violence and the heartbreaking loss of thousands of lives. As events continue to evolve in agonizing fashion, the effects are being felt around the world, including on our campus. We grieve along with all those who are hurting.
On October 7, Hamas terrorists launched a brazen attack, killing and abducting over 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians and children. Shockingly, the response of many around the world has been to celebrate Hamas, to take the opportunity to engage in overt acts of antisemitism, rather than moral outrage. I unequivocally condemn these acts of terrorism and antisemitism.
In the subsequent weeks, Israel has responded against Hamas in Gaza, killing unknown numbers of Hamas fighters, and more than 5,000 women and children. It is difficult to read the stories every day of the citizens of Gaza, caught between two warring parties, with little ability to escape, and little hope that relative safety will return soon.
At the start of every year, I tell parents and other family members of new students how much I appreciate that they have entrusted to our care the most important people in their lives, and I pledge to care for them as if they were my own children.
That’s why when national or world events land at the doorstep of our campus, which they often do, my priority is not to send a broad institutional message on the situation. Rather, my thoughts – and those of many others on campus – immediately turn to the safety and well-being of our students. Safety must always be our top priority.
Our first message to the community – sent within 48 hours of the initial attacks by Hamas – was to provide comfort and care resources to our students, especially our Jewish students. Since the terror attack, my staff and I have spent countless hours talking – and more importantly listening – to our students. I also have shared thoughts with students, faculty, and staff in two campuswide messages, which can be found on our website.
I have personally visited students at Chabad, met individually with other Jewish students, connected with Muslim and Arab students, including those from the Palestinian territories, and have talked with Jewish and Muslim staff and faculty leaders. Members of my leadership team recently met separately with student leaders from Chabad, Hillel, the Muslim Students Association and the Black Student Union to hear their concerns about the campus climate.
Staff across the College also have checked in on our students in myriad ways to take the collective temperature of the campus, and to explore paths to understanding and supporting one another.
All this, and more, allows me to say with confidence that the level of unease on our campus is far below what we are seeing at some other colleges and universities. It bears no resemblance to what is being suggested by some. We have seen no violence nor any credible threats of violence. Week 10 begins on Wednesday and while students are aware of current events, they also are focused on completing the term successfully.
Still, I know that some in our community are hurting, stressed, and fear that what has occurred on other campuses might happen here. Others are concerned that widespread misstatements about what is happening here, and the sharing of a student’s personal information online, is putting members of our community at risk. My team and I continue to work tirelessly to address this complex situation in service to all our students.
Tensions rose last week, especially among those not on campus, when a news outlet published an article containing multiple inaccuracies and mischaracterizations. In response, I want to share some facts that I hope will lay to rest misconceptions that are being repeated, in the hopes of allaying concerns some of you may have:
- There have been no “pro-Hamas” rallies, nor have there been any known threats or acts of violence on campus.
- There was a pointed exchange between a faculty member and a student at a recent talk on campus, which was live-streamed and recorded, regarding an Instagram post from the student. We do not condone the student’s words. We also do not condone the manner in which this student was confronted in a public setting, nor how she has been portrayed in social or traditional media.
- The College has well-established, confidential, procedures for addressing speech or actions that are inconsistent with our values. In such cases, as an educational institution, we seek to help students understand the impact of their actions, with sanctions escalating if problematic speech or behavior persists.
- Last week, an experienced Middle East scholar who was on the Union faculty for two decades before retiring last year, hosted a discussion of human rights challenges facing Palestinians for about 200 students and other Union community members. This was in no way a pro-Hamas discussion nor a forum to criticize Israel. The content of the talk was informative, not inflammatory, and serves as an important example of what we try to do every day at Union: use knowledge and constructive engagement to address the important challenges we face in the world.
Though we don’t have all the answers, I continue to believe the best approach is for us to lean into our values and focus on what we do best: supporting and educating our students. At Union, that means being steadfast in fighting hate in all forms, be it antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, or other forms of bias, and remaining resolute in fostering an environment that prizes knowledge and constructive engagement as we work to develop graduates with the skills to lead with wisdom, empathy, and courage.
I can assure you that my team and I will be using the long period between academic terms to continue developing and implementing programming that will ensure our values are reinforced and goals are advanced starting in January 2024.
Union must continue to be a safe home for education, informed discourse, and a respectful exchange of perspectives and ideas. Anything less is antithetical to the values of Union and has no place on our campus, in the words we use, or in our hearts.
We call upon every member of our community – students, alumni, faculty, parents, and other valued friends – to engage thoughtfully and respectfully as we continue to facilitate meaningful dialogue on the significant issues facing our world today. And please know that we remain resolutely focused on living up to the highest standards you have for us and this institution.