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IOWA CITY — During the first of four public forums for University of Iowa presidential finalists, Penn State Law Dean Hari Osofsky didn’t shy away Monday from the diversity and free speech issues that have divided the nation, state and — increasingly — state lawmakers.
“I’ve chosen to be pretty outspoken this past year, and before and after,” Osofsky said, responding to a question about personal integrity and times she has had to make unpopular decisions in he career.
“I think it's important that we speak out in support of anti-racism values,” she said. “And obviously I'm now treading into complex political ground by saying that. But I think that there are ways in which we can acknowledge, support and recognize freedom of speech and diversity of viewpoints and at the same time say that we value diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Citing the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and election concerns preceding it, Osofsky referenced action she took and statements she made condemning the attack both on her personal social media accounts and in a joint letter from more than 160 law school deans in January.
In that letter — which UI College of Law Dean Kevin Washburn did not sign — the deans called the “effort to disrupt the certification of a free and fair election” a “betrayal of the core values that undergird our Constitution.”
Osofsky, who also serves as dean of Penn State’s School of International Affairs, stressed repeatedly across many of her responses during the question-and-answer forum her guiding values of equity and inclusion.
One questioner asked how — if chosen to succeed outgoing UI President Bruce Harreld — she would hold her “predominantly white cabinet accountable in being culturally competent.”
“I actually think some of the most important diversity, equity and inclusion work happens behind closed doors,” Osofsky said. “It's not just about our public concrete actions and how we move them forward. … One of the most important things for a leader to do is to be willing to actively intervene when you see microaggression. When you see people saying things that aren't right.”
Be polite, she said. Avoid sparking a defensive response.
“But even though it's a little bit uncomfortable, I actually think it's important as a leader to speak up about these things,” she said, recounting times she’s intervened when someone was interrupting or using problematic language.
She recounted times when she was subject to biased comments herself. “I refer to the times, my first year as dean, where a couple of people came up to me — no one who worked at Penn State — and said. ’You're the dean? But you're so young and pretty,’” she said.
Campus leaders should be intentional about inclusion during job searches, about evaluating issues of pay equity across campus and about listening to all sides of an issue — including across political parties.
Osofsky — identifying three big issues facing the UI and her plan to help address them as president — cited first the need to learn from and recover from the pandemic; and second to maintain focus on student success.
“I think the most important No. 3 that I've been hearing from people is really about how we continue to build relationships and connections across political difference,” she said. “I worry a lot that people have stopped talking to each other who disagree with each other. … And I think it's going to be really important for this university, as a public university in this state, the flagship public university, to really work across the state and within its community around these issues of difference.”
Republican lawmakers this legislative session have hammered all three of Iowa’s public universities for free speech issues — including the UI for its College of Dentistry’s handling of a Trump administration executive order banning diversity training promoting race and sex “stereotyping” at institutions that receive federal funds.
The UI dentistry college dean — who has since retired early — condemned the order, sparking backlash over mass email from a conservative student, prompting administrators to call that student into a disciplinary hearing before lawmakers intervened.
The Board of Regents responded by taking numerous free-speech actions, while lawmakers proposed a range of bills to — among other things — eliminate tenure, require employees to report political affiliation and ban the diversity training they said was offensive.
When one person asked a question suggesting listening sessions go nowhere and have been “harmful and taxing for people of color,” Osofsky acknowledged that experience — but posed the possibility they could be more productive.
“I think that listening and statements with no action is harmful,” she said. “But I think that action without listening is equally harmful.”
The second finalist for UI president will be unveiled Wednesday, with plans to participate in a public forum at 3:30 p.m. Thursday. The final two finalists are schedule to visit campus next week. You can find a schedule, learn how to watch online or attend and see how to pose questions on the UI presidential search website at presidentialsearch.uiowa.edu.
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