The following is a prepared statement President Brian Noland provided to the ETSU Board of Trustees at its quarterly meeting on Friday, February 19, 2021.
This has been a difficult and trying year for our campus, region, and nation as a global pandemic has upended our lives, claimed the lives of loved ones, and disrupted our economy. Despite the promise of vaccines, pronounced challenges and uncertainties due to COVID remain for our community. Over the past year we have also witnessed the once peaceful streets of communities across our nation becoming the scene of protests … protests against inequity, violence, and hatred, … protests from which emerged with strident cries for social justice. Our nation is struggling to address these issues collectively, just as we are all at an individual level.
I cannot pretend to fully understand the life experiences that many of our students have faced in their lives. I understand and respect that we are all searching for ways to bring healing and attention to these issues. However, I fear that we may have failed as a society to find a common ground for discussion and dialogue. We each bring our individual life experiences to the table, and while my life experience may be different than yours, the fabric of our flag is part of the quilt that ties together our nation.
We daily struggle with how to make sense of something that is truly senseless. During these tumultuous times, we have watched the fabric of our university’s quilt become frayed. We have experienced hurt and have felt pain – a pain that has touched every student, faculty and staff member at ETSU. Our student athletes have been on this campus throughout the past year. As teammates, they have shared a great deal with each other. As teammates, they have experienced pain, and joy, together they have looked for ways to express themselves.
Earlier this week at an athletic event, a group of students kneeled during the National Anthem, something that has repeatedly occurred on other college campuses across the nation. By no means do I believe that any of our students intended for their actions to be disrespectful to our flag, our veterans, service members, or their family members. However, I recognize the hurt, pain and emotion that has been evidenced across the region. My father served during the Korean conflict and other members of my family have served, were injured, or gave their lives in service to our nation and our flag. I have heard from many of them over the past few days regarding the events that have unfolded here at ETSU and heard that these events and actions do not reflect our values.
As I reflect on the events that have played out so publicly here at ETSU, I am reminded of the important need for people to express themselves in their own ways. We stridently support and uphold the rights of our students to express their beliefs. But we all have to recognize that we are all representatives of the university. Every day when I get out of bed and put on my uniform, I step out of the house not as myself, but as a representative of this university. My every action, word, and deed reflects on this campus and this Board of Trustees. The same can be said for our coaches and our student athletes. When they put on their blue and gold of their uniforms, they not only represent their teammates, they carry the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of this region. When you put on a uniform, you take on a unique responsibility.
I know that the actions of the past days have created tension, strife, and emotion within our community. I also know that we have had a lot of purposeful and intentional conversations regarding social justice, equity, and structural disparities within our region. Those conversations are healthy and healing and I know that they are going to plant seeds that can allow roots to grow for change. I was taught as a young man when I went to school on Sundays that from suffering emerges perseverance, perseverance produces character and character creates hope. I was also taught to bless those that persecute you and to look with grace upon those who disagree with you.
Grace, Hope, Perseverance. Those words have defined this campus over the past year and I hope that they can focus our work as we strive to address the issues that fueled the intense debate of the past few days. We all recognize that exercising our individual liberties comes with a price, and that price is tolerance, tolerance of viewpoints that we might not always agree with. If our University is truly a marketplace of ideas, then all perspectives must be offered. That diversity of perspective, a diversity of ideas is what makes this a truly beautiful university.
As a campus built on grounds adjacent to the VA and whose mission is to serve our region, I reaffirm our commitment to that mission and stand ready to work with the campus and the board to move forward. It is my sincere hope that the image of our students expressing their beliefs on a field of play gives us an opportunity to come together to heal, to have dialogue, and to replace strife with unity.