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College community riven by marriage debate

School’s neutrality encourages individual action

What is the role of a college or university in the face of public controversy?

Last week, the Manchester University administrative cabinet informed the university community, in response to several student petitions, that it would not take an institutional position on HJR-6, the legislation that limits marriage to a man and a woman. The statement created a strong reaction among students, alumni and friends of the university on both sides of the HJR-6 argument.

As hard as it might be for some critics to understand and as painful as it has been to receive the attacks, the cabinet believes this outpouring of responses reflects the essence of the university’s mission – to graduate persons of ability and conviction.

Ability is essential for a productive life, but conviction requires passion, opinions and actions that are consistent with a person’s beliefs and values. If the cabinet’s decision prompted Manchester students to become more informed and active regarding HJR-6, then the university fulfilled a vital part of its central mission.

People rightly ask how we can stay silent about HJR-6. After all, our mission statement begins with the words “Manchester University respects the infinite worth of every individual,” and HJR-6 so clearly devalues the LBGT community and closes access to benefits and equality to those persons. We also struggle with the need for open dialogue while also having genuine concern for protecting an oppressed LBGT minority that is under attack.

As difficult as it may seem, we believe our position of neutrality allows for the widest education on the civil rights issues proposed by HJR-6.

The university’s perceived silence on HJR-6 is not silent at all. Rather, we are promoting debate and informed response and encouraging members of our campus community to examine the economic and ethical implications if HJR-6 becomes law.

The seven members of the cabinet, most of whom are opposed to HJR-6, do not believe an institution of higher education, which supports a variety of people and views, should endorse or oppose specific laws. We believe it is essential, however, for individuals within a university to do that.

We urge all members of the Manchester community to study the proposed legislation, embrace the responsibilities of an engaged citizenry and contact our elected officials to express their opinions on the proposed bill. We are not silent in our ongoing commitment to respect all persons, even when tensions are high.

Was our decision cowardice? No. It was the opposite of cowardice.

Cowardice would have led us not to speak at all. We could have ignored the petitions and moved on. Our response triggered an outburst of opinions and, in light of our history, we anticipated that. Manchester University has welcomed diversity of all kinds for most of its history. Long before other campuses, Manchester has been at the intersection of differences.

Unlike some schools, for example, we do not require that students embrace a particular doctrine. We are grateful that our students come from many faiths, small towns, big cities, a mix of racial and ethnic backgrounds, and yes, a variety of sexual identities. We also have a wide spectrum of political views.

Over the years, our campus conversations have been hard because of differences among students and faculty about religion, race, war and peace, gender, civil rights, economics and politics. Diverse points of view enrich students’ education because they learn about themselves and about others. Through dialogue they grow stronger in their personal beliefs and values. They develop confidence to state their views and take action when needed. They also develop a deeper appreciation of our shared humanity.

We understood when we decided that the university as an institution would not oppose a specific piece of legislation that our stance would be controversial. But we made it because we want to continue to strengthen the core of this university that welcomed Martin Luther King Jr. and arch conservative Barry Goldwater on the same stage just a couple of weeks apart.

A strong university can – and should – embrace differences of opinion and use them to help students develop the conviction and confidence they need to act.

Our decision created a firestorm. Most troubling is that some critics believe that our commitment to civil rights and diversity is lessening. We are not lessening that commitment at all. We are intensifying it.

We want our students to develop their convictions and the courage to express them. We have shared resources for them to use to weigh in with their representatives in the Statehouse on HJR-6. It is in that context that they can have a tangible and positive effect in Indiana.

Our hope is that they will focus their energy and commitment to oppose the legislation on the actual legislators who will make the decision. Through our statement, we have invited our campus community to become informed and take their own action as well as inspire others to do the same. The actions of thousands of individual constituents will be more powerful than one institutional statement.

It takes courage to act and just as much courage to facilitate action.

Jo Young Switzer is president of Manchester University. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.