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Skidmore College
Office of the President

From the president: Scope magazine, spring 2024

March 1, 2024
by Marc C. Conner

What a fascinating, troubling time we are in — particularly in our field of higher education. This year, as we seemed to finally emerge from the COVID pandemic, many anticipated a more “normal” academic year — a year without the sense of crisis that has marked the first three years of my own presidency at Skidmore. And indeed the year got off to that sort of hopeful start — the energy and enthusiasm on our campus was palpable, and the sense of possibility strong.

Then, on Oct. 7, the terrorist group Hamas launched a horrific attack on Israel. A terrible war has ensued, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands — Palestinians, Israelis, combatants, innocent victims — and unspeakable violence and suffering for so many throughout that entire region. The pressures that the conflict has put on college campuses have been profound, particularly around the issues of freedom of expression, academic freedom, political demonstration, and especially the climate and sense of community that a campus seeks to provide.

Here at Skidmore, we have dedicated ourselves to the support of our students during this challenging time. Over the past months, we have held numerous meetings, gatherings, information sessions, teach-ins, and discussions. Our faculty have led educational panels on the history, geography, and politics of the Middle East; created new courses so our students can study the nuances of this region; and invited guest speakers and experts to campus. We have worked with our students as they engaged in political activity such as demonstrations and vigils, guiding them through their efforts to make sense of a conflict that has certainly eluded the wisest among us to resolve. And we have explained to many constituencies our strong commitment to freedom of expression and the exchange of ideas and perspectives that is so essential to a college, while constantly reaffirming our categorical rejection of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and all expressions of hatred.

That point is vital to emphasize. We firmly support the principles of freedom of thought and expression, and we affirm that speech that does not directly advocate hatred or violence, and that does not interfere with the educational process through intimidation or harassment, is legitimate expression that must not be silenced or censored. This is true even when the speech is offensive, insulting, or unwelcome to some — as I have said repeatedly, the speech that one hates is not therefore hate speech. And some of the most challenging expressions we have heard are in fact contested speech — phrases, slogans, and symbols that can mean multiple things, depending on who says them, what the intent is, and what the surrounding community is like. Contested speech requires interpretation; it requires challenge, debate, and discussion; in short, it requires exactly the kind of educational practice that a college like Skidmore is dedicated to providing.

Such practice is especially important because that kind of openness to argument and contrary perspectives and the ability to engage in dialogue across difference is the skill I find most imperiled in our democracy today. Do we see this in the political sphere? In the media? In our public institutions and initiatives? The polarization and closed-mindedness of our current society is the most potent threat to the civic democracy that constitutes the great foundation of the United States.

I continue to believe in that foundation, flawed though our efforts may often be — for as the preamble to the Constitution states, the effort is always “to form a more perfect Union,” understanding this work to be always ongoing. Preparing our students to engage in civic democracy — “to make the choices required of informed, responsible citizens” — is at the heart of the Skidmore mission statement.

That is why Skidmore has recently joined the College Presidents for Civic Preparedness initiative, an effort of the Citizens and Scholars Institute that focuses on preparing and educating our students for the work of democratic citizenship. Colleges and universities are among the few places in America where people from remarkably different backgrounds, cultures, and ideologies come together to wrestle with the complexity of what it means to be a democratic community — an awesome and challenging responsibility that has never been more important. I am eager to advance such efforts at Skidmore and strengthen our campus’s commitments to freedom and the spirit of democracy. I frankly think this is the highest goal of a college campus today.

I am extremely proud of how well Skidmore has endeavored in that work throughout this season of turmoil in our nation and the world. I am thankful to the remarkably dedicated staff and faculty who have done so much to move that mission forward. And I am especially proud of our students, who continue to show such moral courage; such tenacity and endurance; and such a commitment to finding a moral pathway forward in a confused and ever-challenging world. It is indeed my privilege and my blessing to be in the service of that effort at Skidmore.

This column first appeared in the spring 2024 issue of Skidmore College's Scope magazine