January 7, 2021

Dear William Paterson Community:

I am sure that many of you are, like me, still processing the events that occurred in our nation’s capital yesterday. I confess this communication is coming to you a little later in the day than you may have expected, as I stayed glued to the television until the early morning hours to see if our democratic institutions would hold. Something I never thought I would worry about as an American citizen or a University President. 
A mob, incited by the President of the United States, overtook the Capitol Building in an attempt to keep the results of the national election from being certified.  It was disheartening to see that anger at not winning a fair and democratic election – in some cases recounted, repeatedly verified by both Republican and Democratic officials, and upheld through many court challenges – would fuel a violent attempt to disrupt our time-honored, hard-won, and cherished democracy. I watched in shock, disbelief, and dismay. It was as if I was watching video from another country, absent our democratic principles, a country that was not our United States of America.  It was a shameful and dark moment in our history, worse still for being spurred on by the President and his enablers.
Like many who watched yesterday’s events unfold, it was also not lost on me that law enforcement’s response to violent, mostly white rioters was decidedly more restrained than it was when diverse groups of mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors marched in our nation’s capital last spring. This stark contrast underscores the very purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement. Peaceful protest is fundamental to our democracy, and must be encouraged and accommodated. What we saw yesterday at the Capitol, however, was not in that tradition. It was violent, and rather than an effort to be heard, it was an attempt to silence others. As troubling as it was, I was heartened by Congress’s determination to return to the Capitol and finish their business – our business. 
As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced as she re-convened the House for its important work last night, "Congress has returned to the Capitol. We always knew that this responsibility would take us into the night, and we will stay as long as it takes. Our purpose will be accomplished. We must and we will show to the country, and indeed to the world, that we will not be diverted from our duty, that we will respect our responsibility to the Constitution and the American people."
Former President Bill Clinton wrote in response to yesterday’s events that he believed that America is made up of good and decent people, and I fundamentally agree. If we are to look back on this difficult moment in our history, there many things of which we can be proud. The President, his mob of followers, and their sinister plot to disrupt our democracy did not win the day. The Electoral College votes were certified early this morning.  Joe Biden will be our next president, and Kamala Harris will be our next vice president. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be the first woman and first person of color to hold this high office.  In the midst of a pandemic, we had a record voter turnout, and the younger generation voted in record numbers and is beginning to take its rightful place to help drive national priorities. Georgia is sending its first black Senator, along with one of the youngest Senators ever, to Congress, and two openly gay Black men were elected to the House of Representatives. 
I believe that changes like these, while longer coming than many of us would like, prove that the slow, but steady march toward a more perfect union continues. I also believe that the anger on display yesterday stems from fear that people of color, women, and LGBTQIA people are taking their rightful places in our communities, as they are elected to local, state, and national office and earn leadership positions at all levels of our country.  This mob and its supporters see a social mirror that is less white, less male-centric, and less straight. We need to remember that one person’s gain does not mean another’s loss. Our nation as a whole will benefit from having everyone included in leadership and decision-making. But their fear is real, and we must understand that as we move forward. 
While violence is never the answer, I was struck by a comment made by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi at a virtual meeting of the American Association of College and Universities, where I serve on the Board. Dr. Kendi noted that the kind of anger that we witnessed yesterday actually gives him hope. He feels that these desperate acts of violence remind us that it is getting harder to be a racist in America and harder not to reflect on white privilege. We at William Paterson have work to do, as well, as we confront these challenges honestly and openly, along with the moments of discomfort they will likely cause. But confront them, we will. 
Tom Jones writes in the musical The Fantasticks, “There is a curious paradox that no one can explain. Who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain? Who understands why Spring is born out of Winter’s laboring pain, or why we must all die a bit before we grow again?” America experienced a laboring pain yesterday. For some, the America they knew and clung to died a little, but more importantly, our institutions held, our democratic principles were enacted, and I now believe we will grow again. 
If nothing else, the most recent national events should demonstrate that we all can create change by engaging in the democratic process and voting, and we must recommit ourselves as individuals and as a University community to do better around issues of social justice and equity. I talk about these issues in the current issue of WP Magazine and will have more to say on them in the coming year.
Richard J. Helldobler, PhD