"We thrive on the exchange of ideas..."
A little less than a year ago, as the nation was
embarking on war in Iraq, I wrote to the Johns Hopkins
community. Among my observations at the time was that, on
an issue so morally and politically important, there were
bound to be disagreements among us.
I said then that "our values and traditions as
university men and women require us to question
thoughtfully, to probe deeply, to challenge our own
assumptions and those of others, and even to debate."
The message continued: "Those values and traditions,
however, also motivate us to do so with deep respect for
the opinions and dignity of fellow seekers for — in
the words of our university's motto — the truth that
shall set us free. I urge that we keep all those values and
traditions in mind as we discuss among ourselves and with
the broader community the events of the coming days."
Those words bear repeating now.
Why? There are several reasons.
First, there are a number of issues on this nation's
political agenda today that are every bit as emotionally
charged and potentially polarizing as war. Second, we are
at the beginning of a federal election campaign that can be
expected to lead to an intensified level of discourse on
these issues in coming months.
Third, and most important, I already have learned of
recent cases at Johns Hopkins in which discussion or debate
of compelling social issues may have been conducted in less
than an exemplary manner. True, I am speaking of a very
small number of reported incidents. It is also true that
those involved in these discussions may not have intended
their comments as personal attacks on those with whom they
Nevertheless, I think it important to reiterate now,
well before we face any major problems, the importance of
civility and respect in even the most ardent and
As a university, we respect and value differences of
opinion on issues of public interest. We respect and value
differences in outlook that arise from differences in
background or culture. In fact, we thrive on the exchange
of ideas that such differences engender. I trust there will
be many opportunities for such exchanges in the months to
We also hold among our core values, however, respect
for each other's dignity and each other's right to come to
our own conclusions.
I ask you to honor all these important values during
what I hope will be illuminating and insightful debates
over the weeks and months ahead.
William R. Brody is president
of The Johns Hopkins University.