Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

A Letter to the President Addressing Student Concerns, and How to Approach Them

Dear President Peñalver,

I am writing to follow up on the letter I promised during the Town Hall meeting on May 7. I hope to provide the information you requested per my original statement.

The primary purpose of this letter is to provide information regarding the current treatment of students. While I thank you for leading an institution that has helped me hone sensitivity to suffering, exploitation of power and a deep commitment to building a more “just and humane world,” I am very disturbed by the university’s stance regarding the killing of innocent people. 

My question focused heavily on student repression. The nature of the question was why the university remains neutral on Gaza and refuses to cut ties with war-profiteers (especially Boeing), and calls into question the ability of students to communicate with the university on this issue, the most pressing example being rules for demonstration. The reasoning behind this is two-fold: university policy and the recent treatment of students. Policy, in theory, describes the process by which students can do something on campus (i.e. a universal standard). However, if there are ways for the university to break the process down, then it is not a process or, at best, is purely discretionary. The function of a demonstration is to voice concern, especially when other avenues for change have been shut down. The lines of communication were inaccessible for students to voice their complaints. Town Halls were canceled from October until May, inadvertently censoring students wishing to create just and humane change on campus. There is a mirroring of how faculty are often disregarded and how you responded to me. I recommend revisiting “A Public Letter to Seattle U Administration” by SU Students for an Anti-Racist Student Code.

Instead of talking more about campus policy or Gaza, we should have a conversation about conversations. The one between you and me at the Town Hall was hostile. Rather than listening with curiosity, you responded by silencing. The setting was not a legal trial but a town hall. Listening doesn’t always lead to agreement, but it is a critical component of psychological safety. Asking, “What was the question?” actively dismantles safe space. I have learned at Seattle University that politics, power, and fear are intricately related. As a Jesuit University, we pride ourselves on “educating the whole person, to professional formation, and to empowering leaders for a just and humane world.” This is practiced at Seattle University in how we talk, disagree, and respect one another. Our conversation at the town hall shocked me because it contrasts sharply with my personal experience here. 

I am not claiming that my words are perfect. Yet, I try to offer critique professionally and respectfully. I do this out of respect for your position as University President but also for you as a person. I want you to see that I’m using the communication tools I’ve learned at Seattle University to have a healthy dialogue.

I am proud that others around me have given me the courage to stand up and address our community’s most powerful person. I’m proud of my emotions and how they showed as I described the horrors of war. I’m even proud of my mumbled words and sobs because they show that these issues come from my heart. It was disheartening to have been put in a position that professors are trained not to put students into. 

As you stated, “insistence on strict neutrality” in the university “is echoed by many contemporary proponents of free speech on campus. It is also untenable. There is no way for the university to remain neutral around contentious issues when the operation of the university itself is the subject of political controversy.” Yet, instead of listening to your students about it, you shut them out and claim empty neutrality. We are never removed from moral responsibility.

I believe that the liberation of the Palestinian people from their struggles of oppression will happen in our lifetime. There is no reason that a university should support systems of oppression, especially when that oppression affects their students. 

You referred to the message of the Pope, who declared in his Christmas message that the bombardment of Gaza was “reaping an appalling harvest” of innocent civilians. He said: “How many innocents are being slaughtered in our world! In their mothers’ wombs, in odysseys undertaken in desperation and in search of hope, in the lives of all those little ones whose childhood has been devastated by war,” which is a statement I hold deep in my heart.

I’ve been reflecting on your words, especially regarding your involvement and leadership in the Day Hall protest at Cornell in 1993. As you told your president, “These are not requests… These are demands.” I believe this is still fundamental to who you are as an individual and who you can be as a leader. 

I’m signing my name to this letter because you dared to sign yours to your activated work of justice at Cornell. 

It breaks my heart to think you would target other students and faculty the way you have targeted me. 

You have the job of not just sustaining but growing the university. While I recognize this is hard, you will not get far if you do not do the repair work with your students. This looks like showing up in the community, genuinely worrying if you violated some sort of boundary, course-correcting, and apologizing while mending your bond with students. 


Sadie Nelson 

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  • H

    Holly Jokerst
    May 24, 2024 at 2:29 pm

    Thank you for speaking up Sadie 💖 so eloquently stated. Neutrality only stands to serve the oppressor and never the oppressed.

  • A

    May 23, 2024 at 6:54 pm

    Love it!