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Chancellor's Column
The mathematical concept of equivalence can help us interrelate as members of the University community and improve the campus climate.
March 6, 2000

In the fall semester, the University faced the challenge of responding to hostile acts against members of our community stemming from prejudices against race and sexual orientation. The multi-faceted response to these acts of intolerance has been heartening. We have taken positive steps to

Fred Maryanski
Fred Maryanski

reduce the blatant incidents and also have initiated the processes of reshaping our curriculum, student, faculty and staff orientations, and our code of conduct to produce a more welcoming climate for all members of the University of Connecticut community.

Early next month, we will hold a week-long metanoia - period of reflection - on the theme Diverse Voices: A Speak-Out On Difference. The week, headed by Vice Provost Ron Taylor, will feature campus-wide events, including several major speakers, as well as support for departments and faculty members planning events consistent with the theme.

The most difficult step in improving the campus climate is not reacting to overt acts of discrimination but addressing the more subtle issue of the proper treatment of individuals who are perceived to be in some way "different."

First, let us consider a spectrum of behaviors from the least to most desirable. At the extreme low end is violent, hostile action. Such behavior is clearly something not accepted in a civil community and is punished by laws and sanctions.

At the next level is intolerant, rude behavior involving verbal and written abuse and disdainful treatment of members of the community because of perceived differences. While we experienced some behavior of the first type during the fall, the most prevalent form of unacceptable actions fell into the second category. The University's response to this behavior is to work toward creating a better climate on campus as described above.

The question then becomes, "How do we define a better climate and better behavior?" A first response toward improving an intolerant environment is to create a tolerant environment.

As Ron Taylor points out, however, "tolerance" is not enough. We cannot function as a community if we simply tolerate one another as we might put up with a crying baby in a restaurant. Kahlil Gibran emphasizes that point in Sand and Foam, where he writes "I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind, yet strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers."

But if intolerance is not sufficient, what then is our goal for the treatment of others? "Equality" immediately springs to mind. Let us look to mathematics for a better understanding of equality. There are two equality relations in mathematics, identity and equivalence. Identity implies that the two items are exact matches in all ways. Except for Professor Yang's calves in the cloning barn, there are no truly identical members of the UConn community. When we speak of equality, we are not striving for identity, but rather equivalence.

Equivalence means that members of a group are identical under a given relationship. To seek an appropriate real world relationship, we can find guidance in the United Nations charter, which states, "To reaffirm faith in human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal right of men and women ..." The relationship that we are seeking is "dignity and worth of the human person." Aristotle provides similar guidance in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he writes, "Democracy arises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects."

By using membership of a community as the equivalence relation, it follows that we, as human persons or members of the University community, are all equals.

In mathematics, there are three fundamental comparators between two elements, less than, equal, and greater than: <, =, >. We know that treating others as less than ourselves is not acceptable behavior. Considering them as equals is progress, but we most move to the next level - greater than.

Here we must diverge from our strict mathematical analogy. In mathematics, transitivity holds. That is, if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C. When we consider relationships among human persons, however, A can be greater than B, B greater than C, and C greater than A. That is true because each individual, group, or culture has characteristics, strengths, and talents for which they should be admired, celebrated, and honored. In this sense, each member of the community is "The Greatest" and we should treat one another as such.

The University is a community in which we learn not only to respect one another but to celebrate the strengths, talents and personality of each individual. By doing so, we create a dynamic and caring environment. It is the diversity of our community that gives us character.