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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University March 29, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 28
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

"We thrive on the exchange of ideas..."

A little less than a year ago, as the nation was embarking on war in Iraq, I wrote to the Johns Hopkins community. Among my observations at the time was that, on an issue so morally and politically important, there were bound to be disagreements among us.

I said then that "our values and traditions as university men and women require us to question thoughtfully, to probe deeply, to challenge our own assumptions and those of others, and even to debate."

The message continued: "Those values and traditions, however, also motivate us to do so with deep respect for the opinions and dignity of fellow seekers for — in the words of our university's motto — the truth that shall set us free. I urge that we keep all those values and traditions in mind as we discuss among ourselves and with the broader community the events of the coming days."

Those words bear repeating now.

Why? There are several reasons.

First, there are a number of issues on this nation's political agenda today that are every bit as emotionally charged and potentially polarizing as war. Second, we are at the beginning of a federal election campaign that can be expected to lead to an intensified level of discourse on these issues in coming months.

Third, and most important, I already have learned of recent cases at Johns Hopkins in which discussion or debate of compelling social issues may have been conducted in less than an exemplary manner. True, I am speaking of a very small number of reported incidents. It is also true that those involved in these discussions may not have intended their comments as personal attacks on those with whom they were speaking.

Nevertheless, I think it important to reiterate now, well before we face any major problems, the importance of civility and respect in even the most ardent and impassioned debate.

As a university, we respect and value differences of opinion on issues of public interest. We respect and value differences in outlook that arise from differences in background or culture. In fact, we thrive on the exchange of ideas that such differences engender. I trust there will be many opportunities for such exchanges in the months to come.

We also hold among our core values, however, respect for each other's dignity and each other's right to come to our own conclusions.

I ask you to honor all these important values during what I hope will be illuminating and insightful debates over the weeks and months ahead.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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