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What’s at stake for U.Va.?
President John T. Casteen III
Photo by Ian Bradshaw

The 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” incidents.

What’s at stake for U.Va.?

By Kendra Hamilton of Black Issues in Higher Education

The 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.

“Human 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?

JC: 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.

BI: Your determination to use this incident as a “teachable moment” was particularly striking. What thinking shaped that response?

JC: 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.

BI: 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 what’s going on beneath the surface? And what is your assessment of race relations at U.Va.?

JC: 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.

[My 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.

BI: 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?

JC: 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 brave … and how profoundly important.

BI: How would you rate U.Va. today?

JC: It’s 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. …

BI: 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? …

JC: Yes, some sort of pendulum is swinging, but it is still moving, and I don’t 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.

I 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. …

Management 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.

This 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 President’s Office Web site: www.virginia.edu/president


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