by Ian Bradshaw
following is an excerpt of an interview in Black Issues in Higher
Education with President John T. Casteen III after news reports
that the University had been stung in a national string of blackface
Whats at stake for U.Va.?
Kendra Hamilton of Black Issues in Higher Education
news that three students one dressed as Uncle Sam with
an Afro wig, the others dressed as Venus and Serena Williams
had donned black face paint at a fraternity Halloween party prompted
a stern warning from Casteen.
dignity, decency, mutual respect and understandings informed by
a genuine knowledge of history
belong to all of us, not
just to the students affected, he wrote in a Nov. 22 statement.
Efforts to make this university an authentic cross-section
of what we are as a country and progress made toward this goal
are too important to be cast aside by the careless acts of a few.
BI: The statement that you issued on the fraternity party incident
was an unusually strong response by any standard of measure. Can
you tell our readers what you consider to be at stake?
The climate of openness and civility among students. This matters
to all of our students. Student leaders who asked for my support
in connection with this incident offered evidence that similar
events have occurred in recent years. They see a pattern of ill-informed,
insulting behavior. They did not see this incident as isolated.
They did not see it as a violation of law. Rather, they argued
and I agree, based on the information they showed me
that decency and civility within the university community are
threatened if only those directly affronted speak out for mutual
respect among students.
Your determination to use this incident as a teachable moment
was particularly striking. What thinking shaped that response?
This strikes me as fundamental to strengthening a university culture
that nurtures all of our students. Not a witch hunt, not a confrontation,
this situation poses an opportunity to teach to a new generation
the long struggle, legal and personal, by which the University
came to be a haven for individual rights and equity.
U.Va. has emerged as a national leader both in admitting and graduating
African American students.
At the same time, there appear
to be rumblings of discontent
How do you keep your ear
to the ground on whats going on beneath the surface? And
what is your assessment of race relations at U.Va.?
I listen to students, to their parents, to deans and faculty,
to the community. I make my own positions and convictions clear,
but make it clear also that I respect differences, including differences
of position or opinion.
view of race relations here is that] our situation largely mirrors
the national climate. Opinions and experiences differ here as
they do elsewhere, but our history and a determination to protect
unfettered inquiry and debate make these issues especially critical
to be understood and taught here.
You have a long personal history at U.Va. You were there as an
undergrad during the early years of integration. Can you describe
a specific memory that crystallized your thinking on issues of
access and fairness in higher education?
An early morning in 1961 when I watched the only African American
student in my class stand and recite in a required second-year
French course and realized how profoundly alone he was, how profoundly
and how profoundly important.
How would you rate U.Va. today?
Its a better place now: more generative in its intellectual
life, far more authentic in its reflection of what America is.
We were once provincial and inward-focused. Not so now.
Diverse students and faculty address the world generally, not
merely the small parts that any one person may individually know.
Standards and expectations are higher. So is student performance.
U.Va. has been targeted by groups
on its use of race as
a criterion in admissions.
In March, the University of
Michigan will be used by the Supreme Court to undertake a review
of the Bakke decision. Has the pendulum swung back to the days
before Brown vs. Board of Education?
Yes, some sort of pendulum is swinging, but it is still moving,
and I dont know where it will stop. In my view, affirmative
action is not the core issue, and equality or equity of opportunity
is the core issue. I see affirmative action as a management technique
a mechanism to keep the system honest. There are more ways
than one to do that.
see equality of opportunity as the core value and core test of
our success in teaching students the hard courses early,
well and successfully; in identifying and recruiting student bodies
that look like America; and in opening access to all of our programs
of study to any and every student who makes effective use of access
to prepare herself or himself for success.
systems are important, but they are not sufficient. The core issues
are commitment and wisdom in providing for young people the tools
they use to build their own futures.
excerpt from the Jan. 2 issue of Black Issues in Higher Education
is reprinted with permission. Copyright, 2003, Black Issues
in Higher Education. The complete text of the interview is available
on the Presidents Office Web site: www.virginia.edu/president