The great task before us

Last week, I watched with shock and sadness the horrific murder of George Floyd. Events such as this — like the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others — are unacceptable tragedies. And as we grieve, it is important to acknowledge that these events deeply impact members of our community.

To our students, faculty and staff of color, know that I share your grief and frustration. Our university stands with you. We see you, we hear you and we are here for you.

Like most schoolchildren, I had to memorize President Abraham Lincoln’s famous 1863 Gettysburg Address. You may remember its opening lines as clearly as I do: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Yet today, more than 150 years later, we are still struggling to achieve the final piece of our nation’s promise. We elected a black president, yet a black man was killed in Georgia because he went for a run outside. We launched American astronauts from American soil in an American-made space rocket, but African Americans must still take extra precautions when visiting public parks for bird watching.

And even as the COVID-19 pandemic revealed some of the best of our nation’s spirit, manifested in the actions of our frontline and essential workers, it also exacerbated the stark inequalities still present throughout our country. We know, for example, that African American deaths from this virus are nearly two times greater than should be expected; and health care resources are often seriously lacking in predominantly black and minority communities.

It is clear we have not achieved Lincoln’s goal, nor the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Incidents of racism and hate still plague every corner of our country, and we know we have not eradicated discrimination or bias from our communities, even on our own campus.

Yet I believe we can, and will, achieve a future that welcomes, respects and embraces all people. And we, as members of an institution of higher education, have a vital role to play in creating that future. I do not wish to sugarcoat the difficult truth. There is no neat and tidy solution to this ongoing problem, and there is hard work ahead for us all.

There are steps we can and must take as a university community to overcome ignorance, demonstrate the power of diversity and work together to create positive and necessary change. We must embrace the words of Dr. King, “The bell of man’s inhumanity to man does not toll for any one man. It tolls for you, for me, for all of us.”

We are all in this together. We must all take action. Integrity, respect, inclusiveness, social responsibility and, above all, compassion, are core values at Central Michigan University. We must live them fully each and every day.

Begin with the simple act of reaching out to someone you know has been personally affected and may be hurting. Call on a friend or colleague and check in. Let them know you are thinking of them and that you are here to support them.

Educate yourself. Attend events, such as Conversations that Matter and Soup and Substance, and engage in challenging conversations. Take advantage of tools to check your own biases and work to correct them. The future begins with each one of us taking the brave step to improve ourselves as we work to improve our communities.

And then speak up and speak out. As a community of scholars, we have the power of knowledge, of facts and of words. Use these tools wisely. When you see or hear injustice, take action against it.

In the final lines of President Lincoln’s Address, he stated, “…for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

I call on every member of our university community to undertake this resolve and commit to do all you can do to demonstrate our core values — today and every day ­— to further a new birth of freedom.