Salsbury message stirs the pot at Western Colorado University

Cancel culture issues on campus?

[ By Mark Reaman ]

An email letter written by Western Colorado University (WCU) president Greg Salisbury in response to the riots at the U.S. Capitol last week continues to spur debate on campus. At least one university trustee has expressed concern about so-called “cancel culture” infiltrating the school while the faculty senate discussed officially addressing the issue Monday but no action was taken.

Salsbury sent a message on the university’s internal email system on January 7 to faculty and staff and called the violence that took place at the Capitol “despicable.” He stated that while “Western strongly supports the First Amendment and the right of the public to protest…those rights do not extend to destruction and violence, and we condemn this in the strongest terms.”

He said such action undermines our very republic. He then went on in the two-paragraph email to similarly condemn in some detail the “rioting, burning, looting, and violence” that emerged from protests across the country this past summer.

Several faculty members quickly responded to Salsbury’s message stating that his tying what happened at the Capitol last week with last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests was not appropriate. Salsbury sent out a January 9 email to clarify his position but said his original letter had received a good deal of response, “both negative and positive.”

In that second email, Salsbury said he definitely saw a connection between the events at the Capitol and those that took place earlier in the year. “Both began as protests or demonstrations, and both involved violence,” he said. “…My focus was to put forth what I hoped would be a very commonly shared belief, what I hoped would be perhaps the most commonly shared belief – a condemnation of the methods of some of those actors – violence. My purpose was to affirm support for freedom of peaceful expression/protest for all people, while simultaneously condemning in the strongest terms, any of those people who might use violence while doing so.”

The WCU faculty senate met Monday evening, January 11 and debated what action if any they should take in response to Salsbury’s message. No definitive vote was taken.

WCU Trustee Chris Blees sent a lengthy response as an individual to two faculty members who had complained about Salsbury’s message to the board of trustees. Blees said the faculty members he had heard from basically mischaracterized, misquoted or essentially rewrote Salsbury’s statements. He called it completely unfair to characterize Salsbury’s message as being one that equated an insurrection with peaceful (and righteous) protests. “…in the case of Salsbury’s statement – I read his statement as being neutral on that moral equivalency – as would be appropriate for the president of a university with multiple constituents,” Blees wrote.

He also made it clear that there is “apparent fear that exists among those who support the President vs. those who oppose his statements,” Blees wrote. “To me, this is the most insidious lesson that I’m learning from these events… when authoritarian tactics are used to stifle free expression of others – that’s worrisome. We should all relish a good debate. But we should loathe a cancellation or retribution culture.

“My experience over the past few months, and again in the last few days, is leading me to believe Western’s faculty has developed a cancellation and retribution culture that is intolerant of diversity (of thought),” Blees concluded. “As long as I am a Trustee – I will fight that.”

Salsbury issued a public statement Tuesday, January 12 on the matter. “It’s unfortunate that while we are navigating the challenges presented by a global pandemic, we must cope with the impacts of a national event at a local level. We are all feeling last week’s events on some level,” he said. “I am hopeful that, particularly on a college campus, we can serve as the role models for the free exchange of ideas and disagreement without one party defaulting to the ‘cancellation’ of the other. As a university, we are committed to freedom of speech, even for those issues on which people passionately disagree.”

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