Government, Higher Ed, Public Health, Students

Seeing the world through post-election lens and behaving with grace and civility

November 18, 2016

Change is inevitable

It’s been less than two weeks since the election, and there’s a lot of recalibration going on. Life will change in some ways. Today, we don’t know how; we can only speculate. The times require us to use a new lens for viewing current events and thinking about the future. And whichever side we were on, it is really important that we seek to understand others’ positions. For those whose candidates did not win, Nicholas Kristof had some great suggestions for action in yesterday’s New York Times.

It was a nasty campaign in which a lot of grandiose statements were made on all sides. Now, the messy work of governing and policymaking begins, starting with appointments to key positions.

I just returned from a meeting in Tokyo, and it was fascinating to talk with Japanese people about Mr. Trump. It reminded me how little we know about what he will do as a government leader since he never has been in such a role.

My experience on-the-ground in government leadership is that whatever ideas one enters government with, there’s a learning process that causes one to jettison many of those ideas. I did – I expect President-elect Trump will, as well.

There will be changes, and not everyone in the Gillings School will like them. I will continue to do my best to bring reason and balance in thinking about these changes and commenting publicly as we go forward. Those of us who are University employees operate under statutes and policies put in place by the state and Board of Governors. If there are government policies (local, state and national) that I regard as positive, I won’t shrink from saying so. If there are consequential concerns, I will speak up, as I have in the past. I encourage our faculty, staff and students to immerse themselves in the policy domain. Be positive when possible and express concerns when those are warranted. After all, public health is at the center of some of the most important issues we face as a nation and world. That’s the case for any administration, state, local and federal. See Professor Jonathan Oberlander’s recent article on the Affordable Care Act, as an example.

How people feel about change

Let’s talk about feelings, perceptions and behaviors. I’m fiercely protective of our people and the culture of the Gillings School. Other School leaders and I will act swiftly and fairly if bad behaviors occur (assuming we are told about them). Bullying, harassment and subtler forms of meanness  and maltreatment will not be tolerated. You have only to read recent issues of The Chronicle of Higher Education to be aware of some of the ugliness that has erupted nationally. Universities are not immune.

Our University policies are clear in deeming behaviors, such as bullying, harassment and discrimination unacceptable and subject to disciplinary actions. Our Gillings School leaders have stated their commitment to diversity, inclusion and civility in its broadest sense, including political views. (See our leadership statement from 2011, which was reaffirmed in 2015.) The Gillings School must be safe, welcoming and a place where each member of the community can achieve the highest potential possible. Feeling safe is a necessary foundation for self-actualization.

By the way, we indicate safety and support in a number of ways besides the leadership statement. Safe Zone, HAVEN and Mental Health First Aider placards outside many Gillings offices identify trained personnel. We’ve also created a room for meditation, where people can go to be reflective and alone. There are many people across the Gillings School who want to be helpful and supportive, starting with every person in the Office of Student Affairs.

I’ve been moved and grateful that faculty members, such as Drs. Cleo Samuel and Morris Weinberger, of Health Policy and Management, and Dr. Daniel Westreich, of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, have changed class plans to talk about current events when our students are hurting. Other faculty members have done this, as well. There are times when the present must take precedence over the syllabus (or can be used to reinforce it), and our students are so appreciative when this happens. It sends a message of caring that is a critical part of the foundation of the Gillings School.

We’ll be talking more about specific resources for mental health and other issues where members of our community need help in getting appropriate resources. Our international students may feel especially vulnerable right now, and we want them to know how important they are to us, as a global school. We offer that reassurance even as we seek to provide both needed emotional and substantive support. Staff members in the Gillings Global Gateway can be especially helpful.

My purpose in writing is, above all, to send an unequivocal message that we do not tolerate incivility, bullying, harassment, discrimination and similar behaviors. The Gillings School must be a safe, open place for being, learning, studying and all we do as a premier academic institution. Let’s get even better at encouraging respectful dialogue and discussion, even civil debate, and recognize that we are not a homogeneous community in our politics, religions, sociodemographic characteristics, values or backgrounds. Those differences make us even stronger. We all should aim to become better listeners, including me.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.