Thoughts on the week's events

January 8, 2021

SIU colleagues,

While it has been nearly four years since my father passed away, he is never far from my thoughts. However, there are times when I think about him more than usual, and this past week was one of those times. 

My father was a high school social studies teacher and while he loved teaching a number of classes, including U.S. history, his favorite was definitely American Government. For several years, the elective class was so popular that it was all that he taught. He loved teaching his students and frankly his own children about our government. Overall, he believed that even if it was not perfect, it was a good system of government. And if we thought our laws or system overall needed to be changed (and, yes, he also believed changes were needed), then there were ways to do that and he wanted everyone to understand the process. In fact, I can still recall him patiently explaining to me the ways to make the changes I thought were important, even when he might not have agreed with me on those changes. And when our preferred candidates did not win elections, he did not complain about it or really allow us to do so either. That was the way the system worked and if we were unhappy with the results, then we should work harder come the next election. 

Since he passed, I have often wondered what he would have said about things going on in our country and wished I could have asked him. However, on Wednesday I had little doubt about what he would have thought. I am sure he would have been saddened and horrified by the actions of those who stormed the capitol building. He would have been upset both by what they did and why they did it. He would have been very angry about how different the response was to their actions when compared to the response to racial justice protests this past summer. He would have been embarrassed by how this would look to the rest of the world and how it reflected on our country.

However, I believe he also would have been relieved that, as a friend posted Thursday morning, “14 hours after domestic terrorists stormed the U.S. Capitol, the wheels of American democracy, powered by the Constitution, rolled on.” He would have been pleased that Georgia successfully completed two Senate elections with record turnouts for runoffs. In fact, I am sure he also would have been pleased to see the record turnout in the presidential election in November. He certainly believed in the importance of an engaged citizenry, so more people voting was always good. Finally, I believe he would have still been struggling to process all of his emotions based on what happened this week in Washington, D.C., while also being hopeful for the future.

As I reflect on this today, I am reminded that I am my father’s son, and while we were not always in agreement, we would have completely agreed on all of this. The range of emotions that I believe he would have experienced were the exactly same range of emotions that I experienced. I would not be so presumptuous to believe I know the range of emotions each of you experienced. We are all different in how we process events like we have seen this week based on our own unique life experiences and who we are as individuals. However, I have heard from enough people to know that this was a very emotional week for most, if not all, and I am certainly not alone in my struggles to process all of it. 

The question, as it often is after significant moments like this, is where do we go from here? As a citizen and as the leader of a higher education system, I believe this is a moment when we must all reaffirm what it means to live in a republic and to follow a democratic form of government. And I know, it’s not perfect in its administration – especially as we continue to grapple with the clear inequity of justice impacting our fellow citizens of color – but for almost 244 years we have incrementally improved this structure of governance, and what we saw Wednesday was an earthshattering attack at its very foundation and was a violation of what we must hold most dear as citizens.

As we move forward, I believe there is much we can do as higher education professionals. In addition to our own individual efforts to work towards the changes we want to see in our communities and our nation, we have the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the important work of developing an informed and engaged citizenry. I hope we all take time to reflect on what we might be able to do even better, both in our classes and in supporting the many student organizations in which our students participate. We also have the opportunity, like the country, to find ways to make our institutions better and more equitable by making changes in our structures, policies, and procedures. We also need to continue to find more opportunities to discuss the critical issues facing us locally and nationally through open forums and other means. There is so much work to do, but I feel fortunate that we have the opportunities to do all of this.   

And, after this week, it is clear to me these opportunities we have to make a difference have never been more important. 

Dan Mahony

President, SIU System