Ryan issues statement on New Paltz

Editor's Note: SUNY Chancellor John Ryan issued the following statement at the Jan. 27 meeting of the SUNY Board of Trustees. His statement follows months of controversy that erupted in the wake of a conference on sexuality held at the State University College at New Paltz. The conference, "Revolting Behavior," led to criticism of New Paltz President Roger Bowen, and SUNY Trustee Candace De Russy had called for Bowen's resignation. Gov. George Pataki, who also had criticized the subject matter of the conference, asked Ryan to investigate the issue.

Last evening I had the opportunity to speak to the Board of Trustees of the great progress we have made at the State University over the past year. 1998-our 50th Anniversary year-promises to be a very good one as well, and we are already off to an excellent start.

Over the past couple of months, our focus and energies have been diverted by issues surrounding the conference entitled "Revolting Behavior" held at the State University College at New Paltz. This has been unfortunate. It is time, in my view, to bring this matter to a close.

I am grateful for the many calls and letters I have had from individuals throughout the university on this matter. I appreciate, too, the efforts made by the board and our senior officers and the committee chaired by Dallas Beal under the auspices of the Office of Legal Counsel, which has provided valuable information and guidance.

Expression free, unthreatened

Expression is free and un-threatened within the State University. I regret the unfounded charges that there have been threats to academic freedom and "First Amendment" rights in general. The Board of Trustees policy on freedom of speech and advocacy has been observed and has been revalidated as appropriate protection for academic freedom throughout the State University.

At the same time, I hope it has become clear to all that activities on our campuses, especially those under university aegis or sponsorship, must meet standards of intellectual content, significance and relevance to the academic mission of the university. As we move to raise academic standards across the entire State University system, it is important that academic quality and rigor be present in all our offerings, whether in the classroom or at a university-sponsored conference.

The recent conference at New Paltz included components that were needlessly offensive to many people, including people of faith. The New Paltz conference, in my judgment, failed in important aspects to meet the expectations of the State University for intellectual substance and quality.

High standards expected

I expect high standards of academic substance in conferences, whatever the subjects involved. We must see that discussion and exploration are intellectually significant and framed according to the norms of civil discourse. On our campuses, it is the ultimate responsibility of the president to insure that programs and conferences meet the university's and the community's standards of quality, relevance and civility. I hold the president at New Paltz, as I do each of our campus presidents, responsible for this.

Campus leaders must evaluate and make decisions-difficult ones at times-regarding the quality and propriety of proposed conference activities. There is no place on a university campus for displays that are devoid of intellectual, social or academic merit. Moreover, there is no justification for sensationalism or other crudity, which has no intellectual value and whose outcome is reduced respect for the university, the academy and the very freedom of expression.

As chancellor, it is my responsibility to support our campus presidents and I shall do so. It is also my duty to evaluate their actions, and to let them know when I feel they have not met my and the university's expectations. I believe that President Roger Bowen made errors in judgment in regard to the New Paltz conference, which unfortunately have caused harm and embarrassment to the New Paltz campus and the State University.

While the complexities of sexuality from many perspectives are clearly appropriate matters for academic study and discourse, the New Paltz conference promulgated a "how to do it" manual on lesbianism and sadomasochism-not at all appropriate for a university.

The planners of the conference should have known better and planned better. President Bowen should have insisted on substance and rejected the simply prurient and sensational.

It is my view that our campus presidents should be judged on their overall record of academic and administrative leadership and not on a particular event. Our presidential review processes give us a mechanism for a balanced review of each president's accomplishments, judgment and management skills.

University can go forward

Over time, we shall have sufficient opportunity to judge the leadership quality demonstrated at New Paltz and our other campuses. The result of this judgment will be reported by me to the Board of Trustees, along with any recommendations that proceed from it.

In concluding, I believe that our university can now go forward stronger, more able to accommodate controversial matters in a civil manner, and even more open to unfettered discussion of all ideas.

We have much to accomplish and it is time to bring this matter to a conclusion and move on. Thank you.

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