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October 28, 2002

Faculty can help ease tensions

By Michael Terrazas

It seems like each day brings news from the Middle East of another suicide bombing, more destruction of Palestinian settlements, a new round of defiance from Saddam Hussein—and on the other side of the world, the people of the United States wonder whether more violence and even war is inevitable.

Emotions can run high on college campuses even in the most peaceful times, but under the threat of war, with opposing factions represented by equally vocal groups separated by distance but not passion from those with whom they identify in the Middle East, those emotions can reach a flashpoint in an instant.

Emory has been fortunate; while campus discourse over two critical situations in that part of the world—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a possible U.S. war with Iraq—has been impassioned, it has not turned ugly. Other campuses have not been so lucky.

Speaking with other university presidents at the recent meeting of the American Association of Universities on campus, President Bill Chace said the leaders of the universities of Colorado and Michigan both lamented how situations related to these conflicts on their campuses deteriorated into divisive confrontations, with pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students pitted against each other, denigrating each other, even resorting to legal action against each other or against the universities.

“I hope that maelstrom is not visited upon this campus,” Chace told the Faculty Council at its meeting Oct. 22.

One way Chace envisions to prevent this from happening is by exhorting the Emory faculty to help students to air their opinions, emotions and grievances in such a way that, while conflict may not be avoided, at least it can be kept on an intellectual level.

Faculty Council members Jim Grimsley, senior writer in residence in creative writing, and Bruce Knauft, Dobbs Professor of Anthropology, volunteered to study the issue and find ways for faculty to help students channel their energies into discourse rather than confrontation.

“It is important for diverse voices to be heard through discussions that are productively focused and moderated—so they don’t simply devolve into shouting matches between people who merely want to assert dogmatic positions,” Knauft said. “The university is a special location for reasoned discourse because we have a wealth of faculty who can supply factual information and historical and cultural context about current social issues. This helps us understand points of view we may not agree with.”

In the wake of Sept. 11, Emory has held numerous forums on all manner of subjects connected to violence in the Middle East, from primers on understanding Islam to examinations of related threats to academic freedom, to frank discussions on whether the United States should attack Iraq.

Just last night, Oct. 27, five professors—Rick Doner, Howard Frumkin, Robert Bartlett, William Buzbee and Randall Strahan—from public health, political science and the law school held a discussion forum on the possible war with Iraq. Last Monday, Oct. 21, in White Hall a group called Students for the War Against Terrorism—SWAT—held another forum making “The Case for War In Iraq.”

Next week on Nov. 6, Emory College will host the first “Emory Public Issues Forum,” inviting Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor and columnist Jay Bookman to talk with a panel of Emory faculty on the very same subject.

And the faculty are not limiting their expression to forums or meetings; a group of Candler School of Theology faculty and staff, including Dean Russell Richey, recently sent an open letter to President George W. Bush urging him not to attack Iraq, saying a unilateral U.S. attack “violates fundamental Christian principles and the principles to which our nation is committed.”

Regardless of whether it means writing letters, holding public forums or simply leading their individual classes in frank discussions, Chace hopes the University faculty will take advantage of the natural regard in which students hold them and help students channel their intellect and emotions into discourse and learning, rather than diatribes and derision.

“The very nature of these issues means that distress, and even pain, is latent within them,” Chace said. “The task, then, is both to recognize the pain that exists and converse in such a way that pain alone is not the only subject. Univer-sities are places that stand for the use of the mind as it can make sense of emotions. Discussions need not, and should not, be bloodless; but those discussions should give privilege to thinking over temper.”