2023 Convocation Address Transcript

President Snyder's Annual Convocation Address
November 14, 2023


Thank you, Executive Vice President and Provost Poon.

We welcome today:

  • Members of the Board of Trustees: Chair, Paul Viviano; Michelle Dean;
  • Sr. Mary Genino, R.S.H.M.; Sr. MaryAnne Huepper, C.S.J.; and Rev. Eddie Siebert, S.J.;
  • From our Board of Regents: Chair, Michael Gaviña; Vice Chair, Stephanie Younger;
  • Chris de Virgilio; Channing Lindsay; Quinn O'Donnell; and Raul Salinas;
  • We welcome Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Rosemarie Rae;
  • LMU Senior Leaders, Academic Deans,
  • LMU Students, Faculty, Staff;
  • Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange; Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary; Jesuits–all on their 50th anniversary!; interfaith leaders;
  • Alumni and Friends:
  • Representatives from the offices of Congressmember Ted Lieu and LA City Councilperson Traci Park;
  • Convocation committee; student workers;
  • And LMU's African Music Ensemble, led by Professor Divine Kwasi Gbagbo and producer John Flaherty! Thank you for that exhilarating performance… rendering each of us: speechless.

I thank each of you for joining us this morning in person and via live-stream.

As part of LMU's recognition of our history, location, and relationship to the Indigenous communities in Los Angeles, let us acknowledge the Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (the Los Angeles basin and southern Channel Islands) and the presence of LMU on this traditional and unceded land. We are grateful to live, learn, and create in this place.

Amidst the complex and harrowing issues that plague our world, I find myself wrestling with stories of lives disrupted, dreams shattered, and futures uncertain. In the face of such tragedies, words fail us, emotions overwhelm us, and indeed, may leave each of us: speechless.

Our students: come from many backgrounds and places of origin, and they embrace myriad traditions–be they Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Agnostic, or Atheist. Each student, as affirmed by federal law (AND by a founding principle of our great nation!), has the right to express themselves freely. In engaging in such expression, guided by LMU's free speech policies, I ask each of us to consider how our speech affects the welfare of–and, simply, how it may be received by–others. And make no mistake: We reject the presence of antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia. The more we embrace a desire for mutual understanding and authentic care for others, the better we can navigate the current moment and uphold the values that define us.

In this moment: let us acknowledge the resilience and strength of our LMU community. I thank our faculty colleagues, student development professionals, and campus ministers for their leadership, support, and care for our students–as I thank the students, themselves–for coming together in ways meaningful to demonstrate cura personalis and to uphold the dignity of all persons. Let us continue in these ways–understanding that the cloth from which we are cut renders us beautifully similar, especially in ways that define our ultimate personal cores.

During these times, the significance and the stakes of the mission we serve are amplified. As we navigate tumult, today I invite us to affirm core values that not only anchor our institution but also help fortify the foundations of our democracy.

With our mission and values as our framework, let us dig into today's topic: Academic Freedom. I will visit three dimensions of this freedom:

  • First: The "Why" that underscores the necessity of academic freedom;
  • Second: The How: How we can safeguard and sustain academic freedom and thereby promote meaningful dialogue;
  • Third: The Duty: to promote the learning and dialogue that LMU exists to ignite.

The Why; the How; and our Duty.

Part 1. Why We Need Academic Freedom

So, Why Academic Freedom, in the first place?

In speaking of academic freedom, let's begin with the purpose of education. Learning is not an escape-from reality, but rather, an engagement-with reality. With truth.

Higher education deepens and elevates this engagement: it sharpens critical and creative thinking; it cultivates intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth. Academic freedom supports this by creating an ecosystem where persons can engage in open inquiry, challenge prevailing ideas, and explore diverse perspectives. As new ideas are pursued with vigor, academic freedom enables life.long learners to engage in self-directed learning, remaining intellectually active and adept at navigating new and unexpected phenomena.

At LMU, we take this responsibility seriously.

But! At this moment, our future is at stake: the future of this university, of all universities, and ultimately, of the open and democratic societies universities help sustain.

The alternative to what we freely do, is perilously close. Today, authoritarianism rules in Nicaragua, and this summer, it led to a government takeover of our sibling Jesuit institution, the University of Central America, unjustly accused of being a "center for [of all things] terrorism."

This act, which included dismissing students, faculty, and staff and the expulsion of Jesuits from their residence, exhibits the danger that lies at the end of the authoritarian highway.

It took centuries for Catholicism to commit fully to the vitality of free inquiry. But when our founding orders and their visionaries, Rev. Casassa, S.J. and Srs. Raymunde McKay, R.S.H.M. and Mary Felix Montgomery, C.S.J., came together to create Loyola Marymount University, a new Catholic understanding of academic freedom had emerged.

At their heart, our founding orders share a heritage that commits to meaningful dialogue and the academic freedom that promotes that dialogue. Their legacy emboldens us to stand firm against the threats of authoritarianism encroaching upon academic freedom. But as we have learned, we cannot take anything for granted.

Threats to academic freedom are by no means restricted to overtly authoritarian regimes. In Florida, academic freedom is being dismantled by state policies and practices that cancel the foundational principles of our profession. Gov. Ron DeSantis's calculated political attacks on higher education are setting treacherous precedents, undermining democratic values–American values–taking a wrecking ball to Florida's educational institutions, and its future with them.

As I noted in my op-ed in the Miami Herald earlier this year, these actions are not only wrongheaded; they are also futile. DeSantis and his allies imagine that higher education seeks to indoctrinate, if not brainwash, today's college students, spoon-feeding predigested political opinions into the imagined-to-be-empty receptacles of students minds. Those who believe this type of liberal mind control is even possible have not spent time with the rising generation, whose opinions about the environment, gun safety, and diversity emerged forcefully enough for them to become change-making activists, enleaguing with one another–long before their arrival on their college campuses. That is why I refer to them as the Solidarity Generation.

Nor is the assault on foundational freedom limited to Florida. Across the U.S., higher education has found itself caught in the crossfire of culture wars. In this context, we see a tendency to weaponize essential freedom of thought for political ends, wreaking havoc on the truth in the nameof the truth, and manipulating it to serve narrow interests over the common good. With the coming presidential election, we can expect these pressures–and abuses–to intensify.

Predictably, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs are a focal point of these skirmishes, with topics like Critical Race Theory wielded as divisive dog whistles rather than engaged as bases for meaningful dialogue. Often, these attacks pose: to be Christian, even when the attitudes they exhibit and the outcomes they seek stray radically far from the spirit of Christ.

I respond by reminding others how and why diversity, equity, and inclusion are rooted in our mission and in Catholic Social Teaching. These values are not and should not be politically controversial. In a multicultural democracy, the value of diversity should not be controversial. In a land of immigrants, the value of inclusion should not be controversial. In a nation that proclaims liberty and justice for all, the value of equity should not be controversial. These values may be challenging to conceptualize and challenging to realize, but they should never be something that divides us at the level of fundamental

principle. And the fact that things are otherwise indicates how far away the goal of meaningful dialogue is, and how much it is needed.

And so we will continue our work, within the limits of the law, to build a university where admission, hiring, programming, and every corner of our operations is managed with DEI at the forefront.

Unfortunately, today, this commitment is besieged by the dual forces of cowardly anonymity and the dopamine-driven pursuit of virality that the internet offers, bringing in its wake fear, threats, and intimidation, pressures that are felt throughout higher education and that have increasingly become part of our lived reality–even here at LMU.

Part 2. How We Can Sustain Academic Freedom and Promote Meaningful Dialogue

Which leads us to my Part 2–the longest of our three: How, then, do we protect academic freedom in this time? These are days in which, as Professor Cheryl Grills recently observed, "Our very humanity is on trial."

Our approach must encompass two fronts: one institutional, and one individual. I will share five elements we can employ–four institutional, and one individual.

As we respond to threats to academic freedom, our strongest platform is ensuring that our structures of shared governance are aligned with our understanding of why academic freedom is indispensable to our educational mission.

Our practices of shared governance originate in part from the need to protect academic freedom. In addition to welcoming dialogue and the free exchange of ideas in their classrooms and scholarship, our faculty's continued consultation and continued formation of our curricula ensure that critical thinking and collaborative creativity are encouraged, that diverse ideas and voices flourish, and that every community member feels valued–and empowered!–to contribute to the ongoing pursuit of knowledge and growth. I thank Faculty Senate President Leon Wiebers, along with Staff Senate President Lisa Jackson, and their respective Senate bodies, for their collaboration in our institutional discernment over the past year. With so many challenges posed from without, we need to seek within every possible way to work together collegially and constructively. So, shared governance and collegiality represent Element 1.

For Element 2, our faculty help ensure that, in a world featuring an incessant demand for specialized skills, LMU upholds the value of a well-rounded education––that is, one grounded in the liberal arts. Liberal arts education instills a deep-seated appreciation for the breadth and depth of human knowledge and experience–seeking to survey all that we have known and accomplished–while promoting ways of thinking–critical thinking–encouraging empathy and understanding, and cultivating a lifelong love for learning. Students formed by meaningful dialogue about philosophy, theology, history, literature, and the arts are better prepared to provide imaginative perspectives to the dialogues that

impact their lives and their communities–in this time, and in the changing times to come. And this is true not just for philosophers and sociologists but also for computer scientists, accountants, communications specialists, and storytellers.

So many–too many–institutions have let their budgetary concerns erode, if not dismantle, these pillars. These moves are solvent to the moment but corrode what makes our universities special. Please know that at LMU, no member of our community has suggested that we even consider such a dismantlement. We know what makes us special, and we know what makes us strong.

Protecting academic freedom also takes resolute commitment on the part of our academic administration. This is Element 3. BCLA Dean Robbin Crabtree is no stranger to threats to academic freedom. For as long as I have known her, and especially in the last ten years here at LMU, she has courageously championed academic freedom for her faculty and students. Her commitment to upholding our values leaves an indelible mark on our academic community. Robbin, please stand and let us thank you for your decade of service to our LMU community.

Threats are unfortunately too frequent: Scholars receive threats through email and social media platforms related to their research–even their–topics, and educators are being silenced for presenting controversial ideas, many of which flow from classic works that some opponents of meaningful dialogue believe are better burned than learned.

Professor of Animation José García-Moreno has also had his unfair share of harassment, gaining personal insights and a broader understanding of the challenges many of his peers face, particularly from external pressures–this led Provost Poon to create a working group to protect our Faculty. Subsequently, Professor García-Moreno was appointed as special assistant to the Provost to help the university safeguard academic freedom and respond to external threats.

With the ongoing collaboration of the Faculty Senate and the Center for Teaching Excellence, Professor García-Moreno is developing a resource guide for faculty members. The results of this initiative are live today on the Provost's website. Our Element 3, summarized: Faculty who carry out our work, within the scope of academic freedom, will be protected by the University.

Element 4 recognizes the key role of our Board of Trustees and other volunteer leaders in preserving our university's academic freedom. As the ultimate custodians of our mission and identity, our Board members are often the first to hear complaints when a faculty member's scholarly publication or instructional choice rubs someone the wrong way. But our Board has been steadfast in recognizing that, as the Church has acknowledged for decades, a Catholic university must first be a university. This is part of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, which confesses a dialectic between faith and reason–one that evolves continuously by virtue of our pursuit of truth and meaning. Trustees, alumni, and friends, I thank you for your discernment and abiding commitment to this essential dimension of our identity and purpose.

This leads us to a fifth and equally vital Element: the necessity to change ourselves–in ways that embrace discomfort. Discomfort–uncertainty–are virtues because the complexities of life demand that we not leap to ramparts of protective and easily satisfied conclusions–especially when they are prepackaged at times by persons seeking to manipulate our passions for their own purposes.

As a thought experiment, let us imagine a polarized society in which half of those who view the Mona Lisa are convinced she is genuinely smiling, and half are equally-firmly convinced she is not. Such an entanglement would miss the beauty of this masterpiece–which 80% of those who visit the Louvre go to perceive, exclusively. They come not to argue, but to experience the joy of a portrait whose complexity invites uncertainty and discernment.

We can "MonaLisafy" ourselves in two ways: The first is to be prepared to melt, at least in part, during every conversation we have–that we learn by letting something go, allowing us to grow through conversation–especially when engaged with those who disagree with us. St. Ignatius supported this approach, noting that the most important form of freedom is being free from our own disordered attachments–thereby allowing us, through discernment, to choose the greater good.

We also must reconcile a tension implicit to our proclaiming to be an inclusive, welcoming university culture. How can we be so when the ways that some of us think and speak make others of us uneasy? One thing a genuinely inclusive culture does is to distribute the discomfort–equitably. There have always been aspects of university life that have made members of minoritized and marginalized populations feel unwelcome: an inclusive culture, however, empowers them to give voice to that discomfort, and a side effect will be that some members–often of majority groups–may share in a new feeling of discomfort from which they have previously been protected.

To be willing to melt toward one another and to share discomfort equitably rows against the current of our strident, "all-of-this-slate" versus "all-of-that-slate" culture–a culture whose actors and manipulators create a stereophonic dissonance of competing monologues–a culture that allows us to cling to and echo preconceptions, forestalling our growth.

But all is not lost! Within this cacophony of discord, we can celebrate the sacred: the marvel of being alive, the capacity to give and receive love, the joy of laughter, and the emotions that accompany tears of happiness and sorrow. The beauty of families–those we are born into, and those we embrace over time–no matter the resulting dissonances or conflicts. I am referring to humanity: the kind that Jesus Christ exemplified. The kind that welcomes all. Cares not a breath about where we came from, when, and how we were born and formed. That cares not a breath of our gender, our lack of gender, whom we spend our life with, whom we marry, and who holds our hand when we die. We are persons born of immutable dignity, and we are born–each of us–in the image of God. So let's be certain: what I speak to today transcends politics–it is about our pursuit of lives of meaning and purpose–of love and care–in which we are persons–for and with others. Nothing could be simpler.

To summarize this fifth Element: Let us indeed be prepared to melt in all we do, through meaningful dialogue supported by academic freedom. Being inclusive in all we do amplifies our achievement–and that includes inclusion of those who hold unpopular or more conservative views, as well as those who are still shaping their opinions. Let each of us, including our students–our vectors for the great good–help one another and the larger world see the value of accepting the need for uncertainty, confusion, and suspended judgment.

Part 3. Learning and Meaningful Dialogue as a Moral Duty

I turn now to learning and meaningful dialogue as a moral Duty.

In "Learning in War-Time, " a sermon C.S. Lewis delivered to students at Oxford at the outset of World War II, Lewis noted that even amidst the most trying external circumstances, a life devoted to learning could not only be a blessing to many, but also, for some, a moral and social duty. We face such a moment today. For the LMU community, the duty to advance and extend the blessings of learning transcends our identities and roles and binds us to a collective responsibility.

In this sense, academic freedom is about more than safeguarding our rights as scholars and students. It is about upholding a societal duty to ensure the flame of inquiry continues to ignite our imaginations and light our way. Indeed, the life of learning becomes a social duty precisely because it serves and sustains meaningful dialogue.

At LMU, we engage reality, rather than escape from it; we reflect, but also intentionally prioritize action; we invite multiple perspectives, recognize their tensions, and conscientiously honor their values, embrace their conflicts, and seek to harmonize their enduring tensions. This is the spark that ignites a brighter world.

The brighter world we imagine together is not a future without problems; we know that human challenges will continue to increase–as may non- or partially-human ones, like the recent arrival of AI in our personal and work lives. Ours is a future where we confront problems honestly; where we acknowledge and appreciate nuance; where we encourage and celebrate the searching conversations that can solve such problems. Where we are: waiting, open, curious, willing to melt, saying–saying always–"all are welcome."

To the faculty, staff, students, alumni, families, and board members of LMU, I thank you for your continuing pursuit of our mission; for being torchbearers of academic freedom and meaningful dialogue; for nurturing the compassionate minds and intelligent hearts necessary for our future's flourishing. Together, in collaboration, in love, and in mutual appreciation and respect, we can embody a way of life on this bluff and beyond where the education we deliver empowers, and enlightens, and, yes: sometimes, often, leaves us... speechless.