A Discussion We Need

Prior to the NCAA tournament weekend, I shared the following op-ed that ran in the Louisville Courier-Journal on Sunday, April 5, 2015. It's an important conversation for our campus and community. 

By Eli Capilouto

It is tempting to suggest that the debate occurring during the NCAA tournament about the "religious freedom law" shouldn’t be taking place right now.

We are here for a basketball tournament, not political football. But the temptation to put off the dialogue is shortsighted.

America needed the Women’s Suffrage Movement. It needed Selma. It needed Stonewall. America needs events and movements that force the American conscience to see the world anew.

America needs this discussion, too. America needs Indianapolis.

The conversation spurred by the legislation in Indiana and similar laws in other states, including Kentucky, is an essential one. Such laws aim to ensure that everyone can embrace their religious belief and engage in their chosen religious practice. None of us should live in fear of being judged or mistreated simply because of who we are or what we believe. That is a fundamental American principle. Indeed, it is a human principle.

What causes me so much concern is that these legal protections for religious principle have the potential for inadvertently – or consciously – causing the very thing we fear. Such laws should never be used as license by individuals and businesses to refuse accommodation to anyone because of their background, identity, or perspective. Let us use today’s conversation to make clear that it is never acceptable to judge or mistreat anyone – ever – simply because of who they are or what they believe.

I am comforted that policy-makers across the country have used this moment to examine what we hope to achieve versus what could tragically result. Let us ensure that religious belief is never used as a callous excuse to diminish others. Let us pursue with vigilance our responsibility to one another to keep open wide the doors of accommodation and conversation as we seek an even more welcoming community that embraces and protects everyone in equal measure. That is a fundamental American principle. Indeed, it is a human principle.

Against that backdrop, I thought recently of the commercial both ubiquitous and compelling that ran during previous tournaments. It referenced the thousands of student athletes, who labor either in the spotlight or in the shadows of obscurity, on playing fields and in classrooms.

It reminded us that only a few of these students could go pro in their sports. All of them, though, will need to be ready to go pro in life.

The question for institutions like the University of Kentucky is what are we doing to prepare them? Fundamentally, we exist to equip our students with the toolkit they require to succeed in an increasingly diverse and tumultuous, yet interconnected world.

After all, in just 50 years when UK celebrates its 200th anniversary, 42 percent of the U.S. population will be Caucasian. Today's majority will be the minority.

A knowledge economy requires preparing students for a profession. But as important, our demographic destiny means we must also prepare them with the critical thinking skills and the emotional and cultural intelligence to understand that as the world around them evolves, so too must policies and notions of social justice, morality, and the proper balance between individual liberty and collective good.

As David Brooks so eloquently wrote in a recent New York Times column, our strong support of religious tolerance -- one foundational pillar of our republic -- often runs headlong into another pillar, the idea of individual liberty and equality.

In reconciling the paradox that has been both our country’s greatest blessing and, too often, its greatest struggle, Brooks challenges us to find “a creative accommodation” when navigating instances of discord and disagreement.

We should not shy away from these discussions because they are uncomfortable or even painful. The intrinsic, ineffable beauty of higher education is that on a college campus we help imbue young people with the skills to absorb, understand, and navigate fundamental tensions. We help them find their own paths toward creative accommodation.

If, in this debate, we neglect to do that, then we have failed.

At the University of Kentucky, we have an enduring commitment to the values of tolerance, diversity, and inclusion. We work hard every day, imperfectly but steadfastly, to create the kind of open and tolerant spaces in which people of all backgrounds, identities, and perspectives can feel safe and welcome.  After all, we have 40,000 unique faculty members, staff and students – a rich tapestry of diversity, identity and perspective – who deserve that space and sense of inclusion.

We must always be a community that celebrates the multitude of backgrounds, identities and perspectives.

That is why I believe that Indianapolis -- a thriving metropolis at the crossroads of America that houses an association of colleges and universities -- is the ideal place for this debate. Universities are vessels through which to conduct this discourse.

The bloody bridge at Selma made possible the passage of the voting rights act, the historic law that led, slowly but inexorably, to lasting changes in our society.

Perhaps by having the uncomfortable conversation at the crossroads of America, we can come to a place where we respectfully build new bridges -- ones that reconcile honest differences of thought, identity, perspective, ideology and religion.

And in so doing, we can find common ground, based on the simplest, but most challenging of God's admonitions to us:

We are to love each other.

Eli Capilouto is the 12th president of the University of Kentucky.