September 25, 2023

Chancellor Howard Gillman's Remarks at 2023 Convocation

To the incoming Class of 2027 and to all our transfer students:

Welcome to the beginning of one of the great adventures of your life! 

The years to come will be exciting and unforgettable in the best possible way.  It’s going to be great – great but not easy, not without its challenges.  If it were easy, anybody could do it, and we wouldn’t have to spend the time to admit the very best students.

We will walk beside you in the years to come as you work toward your degree, and we will continue to be there for you after you have earned your degree, when at commencement – which will be here sooner than you think – you set off to make your mark upon the world. 

This campus was established for one main reason:  to serve the people by pursuing and transmitting knowledge.  We are in the business of figuring out important things and then helping you understand them.

You were chosen to be here because you have demonstrated that you have the talent and character to understand things even when understanding requires hard work and serious thought.

This is another way of saying that you are now members of a prestigious scholarly community that prides itself on its academic rigor and excellence.

Modern colleges and universities are premised on the assumption that the pursuit of knowledge requires us to assume that no idea is so sacred that it cannot be challenged, questioned, or put to the test of debate or discussion.

And so, to enter this world is to have the quality of your ideas and arguments scrutinized and evaluated, relentlessly, so that when you leave here, your ideas and arguments are better, more reliable, closer to the truth.

Consequently, over the next few years, some of your cherished views may be challenged, and you may be exposed to ideas and viewpoints that you consider misguided, dangerous, or even hateful.  

We will support you, but that support consists of empowering you to more effectively engage our world of ideas, not shielding you from ideas that make you uncomfortable or make you mad or that you think are wrong.

As the great University of California president Clark Kerr put it in the 1960s, “The University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students.  It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.”

This is why we cannot, and will not, censor or punish people merely because they express ideas we do not like.  Even if you think the idea is disrespectful.  Or hateful.  Or dangerous. Instead, we will empower you to engage the idea, challenge it, rebut it.

We will protect against harassment and incitement and true threats and other actions that are not protected by the principles of free speech or academic freedom.  But we will not treat the mere expression of an idea as something to be punished or censored, and we will protect members of the campus community, and their invited guests and speakers, from efforts to silence them through disruptive activities.

This approach is different than what you might have experienced in middle school or high school, where restrictions on speech are more commonplace and acceptable. But the rules governing the expression of ideas are different at universities dedicated to open inquiry and fostering in our students a mature independence of mind.

I want you to hear this from me now, because hardly a week goes by without controversies about free speech and academic freedom arising at some campus somewhere, and before it arises again at UCI, I want you to know our position.  

To underscore this point, we are devoting the upcoming academic year to themes relating to free speech, academic freedom, and conversations across the divide.

Partnering with the UC National Center on Free Speech and Civic Engagement, we will be establishing a wide-ranging set of events, workshops, and gatherings designed to deepen our understanding of free speech and academic freedom, apply these concepts to debates arising within different academic disciplines and professional practices, and bring a scholarly perspective to controversies about how best to address these issues in a university setting.

I hope you will attend or participate in the programs that are of special interest to you.

I also want to extend a personal invitation to all of you to sign up for a course that I am teaching this quarter along with Michelle Deutchman, the executive director of the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.

It’s called “Introduction to Free Speech and Academic Freedom.” It is a one unit, online, asynchronous, pass/no pass class that you can take at your own pace.  It’s not too late to sign up!  I think you’ll like it and you’ll learn a lot!

Today’s gathering marks the beginning of a wonderful journey for you all.  As we officially start this journey together let us commit to learning as much as we can from each other, and beyond that, let us commit to support each other as human beings engaged in a common enterprise to generate and transmit knowledge for the benefit of all people.

In a world where too many people seek out that which divides us, let us remain united, and let us go that extra mile to deepen our understanding of each other, to build bridges, to talk rather than yell, to debate rather than fight, to love rather than hate, to protect rather than exploit.

Let us model for the world how a diverse community can live and work together, even when we do not always agree.

I end these remarks by invoking the official motto of the University of California. 

You may know it.  It’s a Latin phrase:  Fiat lux.  It means, “Let there be light."

I think it is a wonderful motto for one of the world’s great institutions of higher education.  I hope it will inspire you.

Pursue that which is illuminating.  Shed light on fascinating and important questions.  Be a vessel through which enlightenment eradicates the darkness – the darkness of ignorance, the darkness of intolerance. 

You are here to do great and important things.  It’s time to get started.

Again, welcome to one of the great adventures of your life.  A vast landscape of inquiry and discovery lies before you. 

Fiat Lux.