Dear Southwestern Friends,

Charles Wesley, the Oxford-educated clergyman who with his more famous brother John founded the Methodist movement that, ultimately, sponsored the founding of Southwestern University, wrote these words in a prayer for youth:

Unite the pair so long disjoined.
Knowledge and vital piety;
Learning and holiness combined,
And truth and love, let all men see

Today’s Southwestern welcomes people of many faiths and philosophies to its community, but it continues to embrace Wesley’s sentiments. Knowledge, wrought by education, informs an individual’s moral code; a person’s moral code informs their application of knowledge.

Over the last several days, I’ve thought a good deal about this. We’ve been consumed, as so many other colleges have, with the details of resuming education with safety on our campus this fall. Sometimes, the challenges seem so daunting that we wonder why we’re trying at all. And then our world erupts with a pain that reminds us why it is so important to be living and learning together. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has underscored our need to learn about the roots and perseverance of racism in our society and the importance of living out our values of mutual respect in a community of people who come from different backgrounds and experiences. As an educator, I’m humbled when I think of what we have not accomplished in educating generations of Americans about the inequalities of experience faced by those with whom we share this land who by virtue of race or gender or sexual orientation or conditions of arrival in this country do not share comfortable conditions of daily living that many of us take for granted. It makes me more eager than ever to assemble today’s Southwestern community to address this educational task.

Forty years ago, I was one of several coauthors of a book published by the Harvard University Press. It was simply titled Prejudice and it launched my career as a historian of American ethnic and race relations. I introduced the second chapter of that little volume with these words: “Much of the history of intergroup relations in the United States is a record of prejudice and discrimination against those considered racially or culturally inferior by a dominant majority element. The minimum qualifications for membership in the privileged majority have been a white skin and European ancestry…” Written against the backdrop of the pioneering civil right legislation of the mid-twentieth century, I optimistically thought that great change was coming and my words would fall out of date. Regrettably, they have not. In subsequent books that focused on anti-immigrant animus in nineteenth and early twentieth century America, I observed that Americans seemed to struggle with the very essence of our republican experiment, that we are united by loyalty to common principles of self-government, not by a hegemonic culture or single “blood.” The struggle, I’m afraid goes on.

This afternoon, I listened to George Floyd’s brother, who spoke to a crowd through a bullhorn at the spot on the Minneapolis street where Mr. Floyd was killed. Two things jumped out at me. One was the twist that he put on the familiar street chant of protest: “No justice; no peace.” Instead, Terrence Floyd began his own chant: “Left, peace; right justice.” Justice and peace together, intertwined. He called not for an end to outrage at George’s death but for constructive efforts at police and legal reform, for voter registration and electoral participation, and—yes—for more education about one another and our experiences. The education we pursue at Southwestern. I was impressed, too, by his second chant—a chant that called out George Floyd’s name, again and again. The Hebrew scriptures–the Christian Old Testament–remind us of the power of naming. To know someone’s name is to know something about them, about who they are and from whence they’ve come and perhaps even their impact upon others. Remembering George Floyd’s name is to remember the circumstances that have brought our nation to this difficult point.

As much as we are concerned these days about our physical health, I remind myself that our bodies can be sound, but the “soul”—however you wish to define it—can be sick. Today, as Southwesterners, many of us are feeling soul-sick. Yet we have a means of finding healing. It is by learning and living together, joining morality with understanding to grow into better people who contribute to the building up of a better society.


Interim President