President's Blog

Freedom to learn

IMG_1952If you have never attended Mason’s International Dance Competition, don’t miss the opportunity this coming Thursday (4/16, 7 p.m., Center for the Arts). It is one of the most energizing and engaging student events on campus. It is also a wonderful display of the type of university George Mason is.

One of our core values is diversity — of cultures, religions, races, ideologies. Diversity not only defines the kind of university we are. It makes us a stronger university.

Mason’s diversity increases the chances that we encounter a point of view that contradicts our beliefs. We may find ourselves in a difficult conversation, or we may hear a perspective we had not considered before. And that is precisely why diversity can be critical in the learning process.

We learn not by convincing others that we are right, but by being open to the possibility that we may not be. Learning is about shaping our beliefs, sharpening our understanding of complex issues, uncovering nuances that escaped us before.

For diversity to help learning, though, it must be in an environment of mutual respect. Only when we feel free to express our uniqueness, without fear of rejection or abuse, does diversity become a most powerful learning tool.

Our commitment to diversity manifests itself quite visibly in the context of campus activism. After Mike Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, Mason students staged a “die-in rally.” There was a similar reaction when North Carolina college students who were Muslims were senselessly murdered earlier this year.

The voices are many. Mason Dreamers speak out in support of the undocumented college student community. Virginia Student Power recently held a rally on campus to speak out against student debt. Survivors of sexual assault have demanded a change in response and services. A large group of Mason students went to Richmond in February to lobby members of the General Assembly in discussions about rising student debt.

Student activism does not unsettle me. A lack of it would. Campus activism signals that students are feeling empowered to make change, that they are finding their voices and building the self-confidence to be engaged citizens for a lifetime.

I occasionally receive letters from alumni or other members of our community who disapprove of some ideas expressed by students or faculty members. Some feel we are too liberal. Others feel that we are too conservative. The university is neither. What we stand for is the freedom of every member of our community to express themselves, to explore and to learn.

Freedom of speech is freedom to learn. We must treasure and nurture an environment that fiercely supports freedom of speech and affirms respect and civility. This balance can sometimes be difficult to achieve. But it is always worth the effort.

For now, let’s dance. Enjoy International Week!