The Idea of Positive Intent

November 13, 2015

Open Letter to the Silliman Community

Dear Silliman students,

I write to you today to ask you to join Erika and me, in good faith, to help us nurture and support a strong, inclusive, vibrant, and stimulating community of which we can all be proud. This note is addressed to all of you today, the many students who have expressed various perspectives, both angry and supportive, and also to the students I have not yet had the privilege of meeting.

Part 1: Preamble

I would like to offer an important clarification before I start: Many of you have requested that I explain my and Erika’s views with greater specificity, and I am eager to do so because I believe these views have been distorted or misunderstood in many of the retellings. We do not recognize ourselves in some of the portrayals of us. But I also want to speak to you with warmth and kindness, and not just from an intellectual position.

Therefore, you can expect to receive another communication in a few days, with much more detail about our beliefs and intent regarding the email Erika sent to the community two weeks ago and our perspective on events since then. I know that some of you are waiting impatiently for further explanation. As we said in our note last week, it’s not easy to write an omnibus response that will reach everyone in the intended way. For now, I will merely share my deep conviction that, contrary to what some pundits are alleging, there is no necessary tradeoff between respect, on the one hand, and freedom on the other. They can productively coexist. In fact, this duality is even captured with aphorisms such as “my rights end at your nose.” This is a well-trod topic in philosophy and political theory. And the history of social justice in the United States, as well as my own research on human social networks, makes abundantly clear that our mutually reinforcing goals of respect and freedom are supplements, not substitutes. Together, they form the backbone of a civil society in which people are afforded, for example, not only the power of speech but also the gift of listening.

On this narrow issue: I also want to be clear that free speech does not mean harassment. Erika and I would find much of the same speech to be offensive or vile that most students would, and we would never countenance certain sorts of speech (e.g., the wearing of a Ku Klux Klan costume). We will explain this more later, and there are, as we are sure you can imagine, some difficult lines to draw.

I have heard from many individuals in Silliman who feel silenced for different and distinctive reasons (people of color, people of color who do not agree with the prevailing view of their “group,” conservative students, uninvolved students who just want to study, and so on). I want everyone to have a voice.  I want you to talk to each other, because the surest path to learning is to converse with others who hold different views than you do. But I also hasten here to add that many members of marginalized groups sometimes tire of having to “explain themselves” – which I also understand. It’s easy to overlook how, when you belong to a majority group, you can move about without necessarily having to be aware of yourself in quite the same way.  But for those of you – and there are many! – who want to engage in more conversation and debate about these topics, you will have an opportunity to hear more regarding our views at a later point, and to share your own.

Now, I want to speak to you from my heart:

Part 2: Recent events at Silliman

I want to start by offering an acknowledgement of how hard it has been for certain of our students, including those who have had the misfortune to see their words and feelings broadcast in a public arena. Erika and I both observed, immediately after the event in the courtyard, that we were very lucky to have attended college in a technologically antediluvian era, and I join Erika in sending our warm regard to the people captured in the videos, publicly here, as we also did privately.  We have reached out to the people in the videos, immediately, in a number of ways, including speaking directly to some of them. We truly bear absolutely no ill will to anyone, least of all our students.

On a narrower point, we also vigorously defend everyone’s right to express themselves, even as we hope that Silliman can be a place where we act with the civility required of a healthy community. Silliman is a sort of family and, like all families, we sometimes let our guard down and say and do things that wouldn’t come naturally to us in other settings. We hope that no matter what you may think about anyone’s behavior, including my own, we can all agree that a few moments captured on film cannot possibly capture a person’s whole self.

Part 3: A climate of “positive intent” for all

Moving forward, I call on the entire Silliman community to try as much as possible to assume “positive intent” in all members of the community, both those with whom we agree and also those with whom we may disagree. The notion of “positive intent” is a conscious practice of assuming good faith, not bad, in the people with whom we interact or observe. It can be extraordinarily difficult, especially when personal and historical injury primes the human brain to be mistrustful.

But I believe that positive intent can be cultivated, as a core value, which becomes easier and more mutually reinforcing over time. I’ll give you a small example. As a new person to Silliman, it has been very puzzling to me that people don’t say hello in passing unless they know someone personally. Initially, I found this behavior quite cold – as do many of our students from the Midwestern and Southern states – until I began to see that Silliman is full of many non-Silliman people throughout the day, especially at lunchtime. I began to reframe this observation as something less negative: people don’t mean to be unkind, but they are busy and don’t feel comfortable or inclined to greet everyone who passes in their path. Perhaps they may come from densely populated urban areas (especially in the Northeast) where it would be considered odd and exhausting to greet everyone in one’s field of vision. We all have different norms about personal space too. Maybe they are tired or anxious and just don’t have the bandwidth to deal with inessentials. As I began to assume more positive intent in the people who walked past me, I found myself proactively greeting more people – even knowing that I would be greeting people I would never see again or, just as likely, confusing the non-Silliman people with the Silliman students, which is my habit (and one of my failings). What happened next is this: I’ve noticed that the more I have reached out to greet strangers from a place of positive intent – and perhaps it won’t surprise you to hear this – the less like a stranger I have felt myself.

Positive Intent. We have heard a huge range of perspectives within Silliman in the last two weeks, from current students, from alumni, and from parents of current and past students. It is impossible to assuage the concerns of this widely divergent community of voices except to say this: nearly every person who has written to me (and I have received over 1,400 emails this past week) cares deeply for Silliman, and I believe that, with a few exceptions, they have spoken with positive intent. Needless to say, I abhor any threats of violence or intimidation of any kind whatsoever; any such actions fall far outside the scope of “positive intent” and are typically illegal. But from the majority of people who have voiced their views, including, specifically, many of those who have engaged in chalking or raised their voices against me, I hear good faith, not bad, in their commitment to Silliman and to Yale.

In the spirit of positive intent, I want to share a few more thoughts about myself that I have hesitated to reveal previously because I feared they would be used against me and that I would be accused of trying to curry favor or accused of being unaware of the obvious fact that I am a white man. I want you to believe, for example, that Erika and I will be always on the side of students in our intentions, even if we have offended some of you or have articulated views that do not make sense or seem wrong-headed to some of you. Having positive intent does not mean we will always agree with you! But this does mean we will grant very good faith to you.

I also want you to know that I was raised in a multi-racial nuclear family (I have African-American and Chinese siblings). Erika was one of the very first white students at Harvard to join the Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. (Her favorite college memory is of meeting Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa.) I want you to know that I am keenly aware of racial and economic inequality and injustice from my academic work (which has tried to reduce such scourges via research, and which has tried to teach people about these problems with my classes, such as Health of the Public). I am also aware of inequality and injustice from my practical work as a hospice doctor on the south side of Chicago, when, for many years, I would routinely make house calls, every Saturday, to families who lacked electricity and food and not just medicine.

I want you to know that Erika’s belief in the complexity of defining “cultural appropriation” came in part from her experience working closely with disadvantaged populations in Kenya, Ghana, and Bangladesh, on behalf of impoverished women, and children deprived of schooling. These were places where her hosts and colleagues asked her to “appropriate” their culture and seemed offended on those occasions when she politely declined the opportunity to wear traditional dress.

I want to tell you that her impulse to push back on institutional authority, even an expression of well-intended authority that was encouraged by a group of students, comes from her experience as an educator and from her politically left-leaning perspective of “not trusting anyone over 30,” an animating idea of the American progressive tradition that has fallen out of favor with your generation. I want to tell you, too, that Erika has spent most of her professional life working with marginalized and disenfranchised people: homeless veterans, persons suffering mental illness and addiction, subsistence farmers in the developing world and – above all – children who are voiceless. Indeed, her vision of the marginalized child became the basis of her seminar class, The Concept of the Problem Child, and reflects her fierce desire to bring the voices of children and adolescents, including children in poverty and children of color, into the open where their needs can be made visible. Agree or disagree with her arguments in her email – but it was her fundamental faith in you as adults that animated her questioning administrative authority.  She, and I, have confidence in the power of your voices.

I ask you to assume a posture of positive intent as I share these features of our backgrounds and as I assure you that we care for all our students. We have voted with our feet again and again, including in our decision to move to Silliman College. I can think of no one more likely to be in solidarity with marginalized students than my own wife. You and I may differ occasionally in our views on the appropriate means to create a just world, but our aspirations for that just world are, I believe, exactly the same. Whatever your political persuasion, you are likely to be seeking a better society.

Finally, in the spirit of positive intent, I quite understand that the movement on campus has a laudable objective.  It seeks better communication among groups; it seeks to redress past wrongs; and it seeks to have its own, powerful, voice.  The last item in particular, if you re-read Erika’s email, was a point she herself was making!  And the crowd that surrounded me in the Silliman courtyard also can be seen to have positive intent! Students were using the passion of their words, coming from a desire to advocate for our community, in a way that I understand.

Plus, there are other movements on campus, with other agendas, that also are advocating for still more social causes. This is one thing that makes universities so exciting: the clamoring of ideas in our public places.

Part 4: Moving forward

Now that I have shared some details about our lives and perspectives and, in a spirit of positive intent, I wish to learn more about you and your experiences and perspectives, which I have been hearing over the past weeks and hope to hear more about. I imagine that there are many ways in which you feel I have misheard or misunderstood you, and I promise you that I will do my best to continue to listen and to get to know you all.  I have been having personal one-on-one meetings with both critics and supporters, and I note that there is a wide range of opinion and diversity (of different kinds) even within those two categories.  I have been hosting larger meetings in the college, including two planned for this weekend.  I look forward to many more conversations. And I ask that you try not take any one sentence or word from this note, or any of the content of our discussions as a community, and use it out of context.  If you disagree with something I have said, I am eager to hear from you. 

I also want to remind you that I have been at Silliman for less than three months! I ask for more understanding of why a professor would choose to be a College Master. I enjoy very much being in touch with college-aged students, in part because I admire your energy and the way in which you are often on the culture’s leading edge. Some have accused me of having an “agenda” to foist on our community. Let me be clear that there are far easier ways to advance an agenda than to live amongst 500 college students, which is – with all due respect – not always easy. Insofar as I have any agenda, my motivation for being here is simply this: I care tremendously for you and I believe that my professional expertise – which includes counseling dying patients and years of research on the formation of healthy societies – might contribute in a small way to your intellectual, emotional, social, and moral growth and wellbeing.

Please join me in making this possible. I have an exceptionally new staff with little institutional memory and they are all getting their feet under them as well. If you possibly can, please resist the temptation to see things in a poor light. To cite a small example of the need for forbearance in my role, we heard several complaints that the free tickets to the James Bond movie were interpreted negatively as an attempt to “buy off” the students. Please understand that a friend to Silliman College made this generous offer three months ago, and it was scheduled a month ago. It seemed mean-spirited to punish someone else’s generosity because of our own problems. I know it’s asking a lot of you, but positive intent would be very helpful here – for all of us. Students who want to attend the James Bond screening shouldn’t feel they are making a statement for or against me!

More generally, I have tried to say “yes” to virtually every request that comes my way: supplying food funds for parties; adding more social and intellectual events; increasing the SAAC budget as needed; shifting the times of master’s teas to make it possible for athletes to attend them; increasing our budget for study breaks; and so on. My long-term goal is to transfer a lot more decision making to you, our students, in the selection of speakers and allocation of funds and programming. I want to empower students as much as possible to make their own choices. But I need time and trust to make the master’s role work in the way I see it. I want you to know how genuinely happy and excited I was to be appointed Master of Silliman College – and I remember so fondly the day President Salovey introduced me to you. I remain happy and excited to live amongst you and to lead a college that has always had the best spirit on campus.  

There are many more topics we need to consider as a community, including important issues involving how we define the goals of an undergraduate education and the objectives of the college system at Yale – about which I have my own ideas. I intend to be transparent, and to discuss my ideas with you. There are many diverse and legitimate opinions about these matters. But surely we can all agree that we want a community based on caring, learning, and positive intent. I will do anything I can to convey that to you, and I ask you to do the same for all members of the Silliman family.

Toward that end, I invite all of you – whatever your opinions about recent events – to meet with me to have a wide-ranging conversation among ourselves on Sunday evening November at 7:00-8:30 p.m. in the Common Room. We will continue our discussions regarding how to foster a culture of learning and caring (and fun, let’s not forget that!) – given the new Master (me), and given some inevitable changes to the running of the college, but with the same shared hopes and dreams for a thriving community.

I hope you will continue to use your voices and essays to advance your causes.  I was especially impressed with the March of Resilience asking for a more inclusive Yale. It’s a cause Erika and I both believe in.


Nicholas (and Erika!)

P.S. Our next (equally long) missive will come in a few days.

P.P.S. We are heartbroken by the terrorist attacks in Paris, a city we love, and send positive thoughts across the Atlantic towards France, and towards any in Silliman who are affected by these events (please contact us).