UMass forming working group on civil campus discourse

University of Massachusetts Chancellor Javier Reyes.

University of Massachusetts Chancellor Javier Reyes. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 12-26-2023 11:05 AM

AMHERST — A new working group focused on improving the campus climate at the University of Massachusetts, aimed at ensuring all members of the community continue to feel welcome in the midst of rising tensions over conflicts across the world, is being announced by Chancellor Javier Reyes.

In a campuswide email, Reyes explained that the convening of the Community, Democracy and Dialogue advisory working group, being led by Vice Chancellor of Equity and Inclusion Nefertiti Walker, will help the UMass community engage and respond to complex issues “in meaningful, respectful and productive ways.”

“This group, which will solicit input from graduate and undergraduate student leaders, is currently developing a series of spring programs and events geared toward using the university’s educational mission to promote engagement in civil discourse, create opportunities for relationship and bridge-building and educate and inform the campus through dialogue and knowledge-building activities,” Reyes wrote.

Members of the working group will include faculty, staff and campus leaders with expertise in a range of disciplines, including geopolitics, communication, an civil discourse. Reyes made no mention of including students in the working group.

Reyes’ letter acknowledges the ongoing protests and actions on campus, many that have been centered on the Israel-Hamas war, including the October demonstration that ended with more than 50 students being arrested after refusing to leave the Whitmore Administration Building when it closed for the day.

The protesters had earlier made appeals to Reyes for UMass to divest and cut all ties with “war profiteers” and replace them with groups working toward a sustainable and demilitarized future, and for Reyes to make a statement condemning what they contend is Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

“While holidays are often a time of joy, I want to acknowledge that many on our campus and in the world are facing heartbreaking conflict, which has led to rising tensions within our community,” Reyes wrote. “The intense public demonstrations that we’ve experienced over the past several weeks are characteristic of UMass Amherst’s long history of activism.”

He also observed that while some demonstrations were respectful and civil, others were more confrontational and polarizing. Even as UMass has a deep commitment to academic freedom and upholding the First Amendment, Reyes wrote that inclusion and belonging and fostering an environment where everyone is welcome are critical.

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“Demonstrations that engage in bullying and intimidation or interfere with the operation of the university, including at least one demonstration that occurred in an academic space, are unacceptable, run counter to our values and are in violation of both our Code of Student Conduct and the campus Picketing Code,” Reyes wrote.

The working group will encourage a variety of activities, including keynote lectures, panel discussions, dialogue or healing circles and the development of informational toolkits. There will also be grant funding available for students, faculty and staff.

Meanwhile, Reyes wrote that the next phase of the strategic planning process is underway, following work done in the fall under the leadership of Professor MJ Peterson and Dean Anne Massey.

That included listening sessions with each of the schools and colleges, the Student Government Association and Graduate Student Senate and major business units, which outlined the mission and strategic goals of each area, the biggest challenges, and the most promising opportunities facing UMass.

Surveys have also been sent to the Faculty Senate, Rules Committee and the Campus Planning and Resource Committee for reflection and input.

Reyes concluded his letter with a thank you to faculty, staff and students following his first fall semester.

“I look forward to seeing you in the New Year and coming together to shape the future of UMass Amherst,” he wrote.