Diversity and Community Engagement

The University of Mississippi

Opening Remarks by Chancellor Jeffrey S. Vitter

Program for Reflection and Unity
Thursday, July 21, 2016
Paris-Yates Chapel

Welcome and thank you all for coming.

It has been an extremely difficult month in the U.S. as we have witnessed the loss of lives in Orlando, my home state of LA, MN, and TX.

We also join the world community in mourning recent deaths in France and Turkey.

I am sure that many of you, like Sharon and me, have found yourselves in conversations — around family tables, in restaurants, in churches, and in other gathering places — struggling to make sense of what we have seen and the pain we feel.

No one, especially our African American citizens, should live in fear of discrimination, bias, or social injustice.

And law enforcement officers cannot be gunned down in the streets that they serve and protect.

Gatherings planned in peaceful solidarity should not be turned into killing fields.

We all hurt, we all mourn with those directly affected, and we all worry every day about the safety of our own families, our communities, our nation, and the world.

I want to thank the Sensitivity & Respect Committee, led by Dr. Donald Cole, for the opportunities I’ve had to meet and interact with them — and especially for developing a strong statement condemning the recent violence and calling for civil dialogue to address the issues at hand.

All leaders in our university stand in full solidarity with this statement. We are committed to ensuring that our university fulfills its role

  1. as a catalyst for healing,
  2. for convening important conversations, &
  3. for working together to find sustainable solutions.

I’m also grateful to our LOU community leaders who share in that commitment. Here tonight is Mayor Pat Patterson, and Pres. LC Board of Supervisors Jeff Busby will be arriving during the ceremony.

I also thank the members of the university senior leadership team here today — esp. Provost Morris Stocks, Dr. Donald Cole, Vice Chancellor Brandi Hephner LaBanc, Vice Chancellor Alice Clark, and AD Ross Bjork — for developing our program tonight.

Tonight’s event is focused upon reflecting and uniting.

From here we will begin the important community conversations to move forward.

But for now, we must mourn together. We must heal. We must lend each other support and comfort.

We must have empathy and understanding for each other’s perspectives — to bring people together, not to divide.

We must stand together, work together to find lasting solutions to the challenges that we face together.

Higher education has a crucial role to play. I myself entered university leadership, because I am absolutely passionate about the transformative power of Higher Ed.

Nothing is more important to the future of our society, our livelihoods, our communities than education, especially Higher Education.

  • Through education, we combat ignorance,
  • Education is teaching people figuratively how to fish so that they can achieve for themselves rewarding lives, families, and self-respect.
  • Education is key to healing and to finding ways to prevent future acts of violence.

Our most valuable tool is civil dialogue. But dialogue must lead to change. Change starts in the hearts and minds of individuals.

Change will happen not from the top down, but

  • from within,
  • with participation from across our university community,
  • when we reach out and work together.

And we must and will work together to make “inclusion and respect for others” a priority for everyone.

We have excellent resources, programs, and expertise on our campuses to guide those conversations and improve our communities

In the coming weeks, I will be calling upon our

  • William Winter Institute,
  • Sensitivity & Respect Committee,
  • Center for Inclusion & Cross-Cultural Engagement

and others on campus to suggest programs for the fall semester.

I hope that every person who feels pain, fear, or confusion by these troubling events will reach out to fellow members of the university family and access the resources that are available. Check in with your friends and colleagues and reach out to see if you can help and offer assistance.

More than anything, the UM Creed must guide our way. By following the Creed, we can be a model for our nation/world on how to move forward. We must heal locally so that we can lead globally.

In closing, I want to make some brief personal comments.

As Sharon and I were making our decision to become a part of this community, this family,
we thought about what really matters to us. We were making what we intend to be the last move of our professional lives, and we wanted to get it right.

We both believe deeply in the unique value and worth of every individual and every viewpoint. We also believe deeply in the principles of fairness and justice. We want to live in a place that elevates the voice and contribution of everyone in an atmosphere of mutual respect. We want to be part of a place where empathy, communication, and genuine caring are the very fabric of the community.

We found that place here. We chose this treasured place as our home. The UM Creed is our personal Creed.

By following the Creed, we can have the difficult but respectful discussions we must have as a family, a community, and a country.

  • As individuals, we may not have the answers to this difficult chapter in our country’s life.
  • But as an interdependent community, we will find the answers.

Thank you all again for caring and for being here tonight.