Recently, heated controversy struck the University of Oregon over the fate of the Pacifica Forum, a discussion group invited to the university by Professor Emeritus Orval Etter. The Pacifica Forum, which has in past year hosted prominent Holocaust deniers, claims that its mission is “to provide information and points of view” on “war and peace, militarism and pacifism, violence and non-violence”; however, many argue that it has descended into a platform for hate speech, white supremacy and nazi propaganda. The last two meetings have seen growing numbers of protestors and the university’s administration has met frequently in recent weeks to debate the correct path of action. Regardless of the decision it makes, the university must keep its reputation and brand at the focus of its efforts.
The issues at hand with the Pacifica Forum are entwined with some of the most politically charged topics in society, including free speech, diversity and anti-Semitism. As the university navigates the waters of these political land mines, it must focus on how to best represent itself to the public, prospective students and alumni, and how it will use this controversy as a way to set a positive examples for other universities to follow. The University of Oregon must carefully craft a public relations campaign with the goal of protecting its image as a campus celebrating diversity, civil liberties and scholarly dialogue.
If the university bans the Pacifica Forum from campus, it will be seen as a violator of free speech and first amendment rights, a hypocrite violating its own commitment to celebrating diverse discussion and all points of view. Similarly, if it allows the Pacifica Forum to remain, despite the wishes of a growing number of students, staff and faculty, it will likewise be condemned for violating its own commitment to celebrating diversity and creating a safe space for all. It is a catch-22. Because either scenario has the guarantee of painting the university in a negative light, the university must instead commit itself to proactively reinforcing its position among key publics. Until it makes a definitive decision, the university must send a clear and persuasive message: that while it condemns the words and opinions of the Pacifica Forum and will not stand behind a group that threatens the safety or inclusion of a diverse student and faculty body, the university will not violate such a pillar of America’s freedom.
The university must be diligent and proactive in distancing itself from the Pacifica Forum. Currently, a Wikipedia site on the Pacifica Forum describes the Pacifica Forum as “located at the University of Oregon,” which immediately implies an agreeable relationship. The only reference to the university’s position stated on the Wikipedia site is outdated, referring to former president Frohnmayer. There is no reference to a position or statement made by the new president. The public access channel recently showed Pacifica Forum meetings with words scrolling across the screen that say “Pacifica Forum, University of Oregon.” Again, this infers a sense of agreeable sponsorship that the university must proactively deny. If the university waits and only later retroactively reaffirms its position, it runs the risk of developing an image that paints it as a proactive supporter of white supremacist groups; this could be devastating to its reputation as a leader in diversity and could harm its reputation with key publics, like potential attendees and influential alumni.
For recent photos of the latest meeting and protests taken by the campus newspaper, the Oregon Daily Emerald, visit: http://www.dailyemerald.com/multimedia/pacifica-forum-protest-photos-1.1012398