Charles G. Lief
President (July 2012)
JD, University of Colorado, School of Law
BA, Brandeis University
Charles G. Lief was named the 7th president of Naropa University in 2012 after a deep forty-year affiliation with Naropa—first as a student of Naropa’s founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, then as a lawyer for the university, and later as chairman of the board. Under President Lief’s leadership, Naropa University has developed strategic partnerships to deepen Naropa’s impact on its students and on the world. This includes revitalizing Naropa’s commitment to the arts, investing in substantial capital improvements to Naropa’s facilities, and substantially growing its undergraduate and graduate enrollment.
Prior to assuming his current role, Chuck led some of the country’s most innovative and successful organizations providing integrated social enterprises and social services, including the Greyston Foundation and Amida Care, which together provided essential housing, health care, and employment to thousands of low-income people in the Northeast.
Chuck has served in leadership capacities on numerous boards, currently serves as the Chairman of the Board of the Lion’s Roar Foundation, and is a trustee at Bridge House and Veteran’s PATH. Chuck has previously served on the boards of Shambhala International, the Social Enterprise Alliance, the Intervale Center, the Vermont Community Loan Fund, Vermont Works for Women, the Westchester County Housing Commission, the New York State Governor’s AIDS housing task force, and many others.
He earned a BA from Brandeis University and a JD from the University of Colorado School of Law.
Selected Writings & Addresses
Today the United States Supreme Court issued a decision rejecting the use of racial identity as a factor in university admissions. The ability to use tools labeled as “affirmative action” to achieve diversity in a college’s student body has, for decades, been among the most important ways to address centuries of institutional racism which have left non-white students at the gate. While there are still ways to consider other “proxies” such as economic need to offer opportunities to Black, Native American, and Latinx applicants, the stark truth is that the Court has determined that the 400 years of historical oppression of those communities in the US is insufficiently violent so as to require that some level of reparation be allowed – in this case, a direct pathway to higher education. Read more.
For the past week the country has been overwhelmed with the impact of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers. Without doubt this heinous act of aggression, perpetrated by persons who are part of a visibly dominant social and political location against a man of color, has unleashed a tidal wave of reactions—fear, furor, depression, guilt, impatience and more.
But the fact is, what happened to George Floyd has happened, without gap or relief, for 400 years to people of color and Native Americans in this country. It would dishonor the life of George Floyd to fail to also note Ahmaud Arbery from Brunswick GA, Breonna Taylor and David McAtee both from Louisville KY, Tony McDade from Tallahassee FL, and countless others who met their deaths at the hands of the police.
The four Minneapolis police officers may be the current lightning rods attracting our outrage, but let’s not pretend there are not vast numbers of fellow members in police departments or other places of power across the country, both known and unknown, and both condemned and tolerated.
In some ways the murder of George Floyd feels like the universe is unfairly piling pain onto pain. How do we take it all in when we are mired in the challenges of the pandemic? And yet this juxtaposition itself is a powerful education. While we cannot argue that the government response to the pandemic is subject to considerable criticism, we also can see that if motivated we as a society can act quickly and decisively if so moved—it took a matter of days to liberate $3 trillion as a means of softening the blow of the pandemic. No rational person can argue that as a society we aren’t suffering, either physically or economically, as a result of COVID-19, or that we are doing enough. But the speed and magnitude of our actions around the virus is unprecedented. And yet, four centuries later, we still tolerate a social structure where we blame the victims of racism and cannot take the truly bold steps needed to affect lasting change. Nor can we humbly and intentionally admit to those who follow us that we still got it wrong.
To be sure, as a society we have made some measurable progress in dealing with systemic racism. However, Mr. Floyd’s murder is the latest wakeup call illuminating the danger of what Dr. King named the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
We should be grateful to everyone who is in the streets, raising their voices, honoring principles of nonviolent civil disobedience, and insisting on accountability and systemic change. But gratitude alone doesn’t cut it. It is not someone else’s job to do our personal work or give voice to what must be our personal demand for community transformation.
One problem with the notion that we are dealing with deeply embedded “institutional racism” is that such a view invites an “institutional” response. Such responses are so often overly conceptual, too polite and not radical in form or action; and they are based on the pretense that we have the luxury of time.
At Naropa, a predominately white university in a mainly white community, we face the need to look inward with the same impatience and honesty as many in our community are expressing elsewhere. I am heartened that many white members of our faculty have raised this existential issue and reaffirmed a commitment to do the work. As one professor put it: “I don’t want to rely on others to educate me. I do want to be a voice in the change process, as uncomfortable as that may be. I wonder if we may all be allies for one another in finding ways to make change both within and outside of Naropa?” To which a colleague replied, “I feel strongly that one of the primary ways Naropa can change the structures of oppression is by looking at how these structures manifest in our own institution. I have felt, and continue to strongly feel, that we cannot make a difference more broadly if we aren’t willing to do that work ourselves.”
We cannot further traumatize our students, faculty and staff who come from marginalized locations, and who, even if unintentionally, are expected to bring their raw and deeply personal pain and feelings of anger and to “fit it in” to a classroom or other discussion where the majority of the participants come from a privileged background and who have very different lived experiences of oppression. What is worse is to expect those community members to bear the additional burden of having to teach the rest of us how to engage, how to take responsibility, and how to use our power to effect systemic change.
Good intention does not equate to a skillful ability on the part of any of us to lead or facilitate the work before us—neither the academic learning nor the mind-body practices needed at this time. Meaningful facilitation and teaching require a personal commitment to learn from others, to accept our own responsibility and to acknowledge and then suspend our own privilege. It also requires a community wide agreement that the work is required, not elective, and without such an agreement we cannot be fully educated or fully human.
I am very aware, as our founder often reminded us, that “words don’t cook rice.” But the fact that our words are, by nature, incomplete, is not an excuse for silence. Neither can speech be a substitute for action. I invite us to go deeper, to take more risk and to truly honor the founding vision that recognizes the inherent wisdom and goodness in each human being.
I will not presume to understand the complex ways in which each one of us is experiencing and processing what is before us. I encourage anyone in need of support to make use of available resources. For students, please remember that we are keeping the Student Counseling Center open all summer. For staff, you have access to support through our Employee Assistance Program or we can help connect you a Naropa-trained mental health counselor. Feel free to contact me directly for that. And less formally, I encourage anyone who would find it helpful to acknowledge the intensity of what we are dealing with and to schedule some time off for self-care.
Judy and I send you all our best wishes and heartfelt hope for your good health.
As written in our mission statement, Naropa University is committed to supporting our students as they “explore the inner resources needed to engage courageously with a complex and challenging world, [and] to help transform that world through skill and compassion….” Naropa graduates have powerfully met that mission challenge for four decades.
The shooting in Parkland, Florida is, tragically, just the most recent example of a culture of violence run wild. Naropa fully supports the student-led initiatives that are honestly and courageously taking on the gun lobby and fearlessly engaging those who would cynically conflate the need for reasonable means of protection from the actions of ill-intentioned aggressors with the unfettered creation of an unregulated armed society.
Not since the protests against the war in Southeast Asia has the United States seen a student-led movement with such promise to spark a powerful social change. Just as was learned from the anti-war movement, when too often we attacked lower level members of the military who were compelled to serve and had no power to change policy, the current gun regulation movement needs to take care not to demonize well-intentioned, basically good individuals who are often from communities not like our own, and who are worried about their own safety and that of their loved ones. We should encourage the current focus on illuminating and criticizing our social failure to provide adequate mental health intervention and care, and to bravely calling out those who, based upon fear of losing political power and financial gain, have for decades created obstacles to the kind of reform to the gun culture needed to re-gain a level of social sanity.
Naropa welcomes this student-led movement and offers our support, our advice when sought, and such resources as we can reasonably deploy in order for us to actively bear witness to the kind of changes that are so desperately needed.
This movement has reached a point of resonance that has made it necessary for many institutions to assure current as well as potential students that participation in actions of protest or civil disobedience in response to gun violence in schools will not influence, change, or affect any student’s status or their potential acceptance by universities to which they have applied. Two such planned instances of civil disobedience that are currently scheduled are a “student walk-out” scheduled to last 17 minutes on March 14, 2018 and the March for Our Lives on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC and across the country. Naropa supports these actions and will take necessary steps with faculty and staff to ensure that support is offered across the University. This type of activism is vital to both our mission and to the growth of courageous, conscientious, and compassionate human beings.
Naropa is proud to add our voice to those of many other universities to assure any applicant that participation in peaceful protest or acts of civil disobedience will not impact our admissions decision, regardless of any misguided disciplinary actions that might be taken by high school administrators or others in positions of power.
We owe a debt of gratitude for those students who, despite trauma and grief, saw an opportunity to energize a movement and speak out against aggression and greed so clearly and passionately. And who do so despite the efforts to mute their voices and question their motivation. Naropa is proud to be aligned with this righteous cause.
Charles G. Lief
Diversity, Inclusion and Compassion have been embedded in the curriculum and core values of Naropa University since our founding. More than an academic value or abstraction, we commit to supporting and protecting staff, students, faculty and guests of Naropa, especially those who are most likely to be targeted in the name of public policy. This includes those who are part of the 800,000 plus members of the DACA community, some of whom are part of the Naropa family. This commitment is especially important to Naropa as we were founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, an accomplished teacher and spiritual leader who himself was forced from his homeland as a result of political persecution, and who was offered a home, first in India, then in the United Kingdom and finally in the United States. The history of contemplative education and the mindfulness movement would be written very differently had Trungpa Rinpoche not been offered sanctuary. It is our duty and our privilege to offer support to new generations of people experiencing their own persecution.
In light of the attempts by the President of the United States and his administration to exclude immigrants and refugees, including members of the Muslim community and undocumented students, we believe it is necessary and timely to denounce those action and to clearly state principles and practices that reinforce our commitment and values. In doing so we join other Universities, churches and municipalities across the United States in solidarity. These practices are drawn from the wisdom, compassion and active engagement of our own Naropa Community, as well as the pioneering work of sister institutions to whom we express gratitude. For clarity, there is no established legal definition of “sanctuary” as it applies to offering a place of safety and refuge. A declaration that Naropa will be called a Sanctuary Campus has no force of law and it is important not to create confusion or inadvertently support assumptions about the impact of such a label on the lives, safety and security of those at risk of becoming the victims of government policies of exclusion.
We believe that what is important is to affirm values and take specific actions which have direct impact on those in our community that we are committed to serving with care. In keeping with those concerns please consider the following statements, re-statements and clarifications.
- Naropa does not and will not, to the fullest extent of the law, share student information with Immigration enforcement officials. We respect and comply with the protections afforded by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
- Naropa will not voluntarily give access to any University property, including University owned housing, to immigration officials, for investigative, enforcement or similar purposes. Any such requests received by any Naropa employee should be sent to the Office of the President, with a copy to the Director of Safety and Facilities. The Office of the President, with advice from legal counsel if deemed necessary, will coordinate the Naropa University response.
- Naropa employees will not assist ICE, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) or any state or local law enforcement agencies in their efforts to identify and deport undocumented community members.
- Naropa staff will not ask students to share their immigration status or religious affiliation.
- Naropa will admit students in keeping with our overall policies of nondiscrimination in the admissions process.
- Naropa will maintain a resource data base of immigration attorney’s and other counseling support as needed by our undocumented or otherwise at risk students.
- We reject and will not voluntarily cooperate with any government effort to establish a registry of persons based upon protected classifications such as religion, national origin, race or sexual orientations.
- Naropa will encourage all members of the community to report bias and hate crime incidents, either experienced or witnessed, in an attempt to stop them from occurring.
- Naropa endorses the treatment of college campuses as “sensitive locations” by ICE, CBP or any other agency with enforcement authority.
- Naropa supports the intent and application of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, DACA, and urges Congress to accept its responsibility to protect DACA youth.
From these specific actions and concerns Naropa renews its overall mission to advocate for the transformation of dominant and oppressive systems in order to meet our deep commitment of facilitating positive transformation of people and communities. This means committing to shining a light on unequal treatment of immigrants and Muslims, People of Color, LGBTQIA+, disabled and other marginalized persons with whom we are in community with at Naropa, as well as those we each encounter more widely.
Please join with me, in community, to advocate for compassionate and wise public policy and especially to care for one another.
Charles G. Lief