Casteen, Board’s diversity committee condemn acts of prejudice
|Photo by Dan Addison
|BOV member Warren Thompson
By Anne Bromley and Dan Heuchert
The word spread quickly throughout the community on Sept. 16 — meet at the Rotunda steps at 5 p.m.
U.Va. President John T. Casteen III and the Board of Visitors’ Special Committee on Diversity had a meeting earlier that day, and they wanted to let everyone know they are dedicated to continuing and strengthening efforts to create the best environment for diversity to flourish here.
The meeting-after-the-meeting provided board members an opportunity to publicly express their solidarity with the U.Va. community in condemning recent incidents of prejudice against minority students.
The historic moment of their presence as they stood behind the president was not the only one that day. A few minutes earlier, the virtual presence of U.Va.’s first vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity joined the board meeting by speaker-phone. William B. Harvey participated in the discussion, although he officially takes his place on Grounds on Nov. 1
Casteen told the crowd of several hundred students, faculty and staff members that he stood before them to express solidarity and oneness with the U.Va. community and those students who had been threatened. Insults against African-American and other minority students “threaten a core freedom — the right to move safely in our community and to have a sense of belonging,” he said, but he cautioned them to stay calm and rational. Wearing black ribbons, passed out during the address, is a symbolic way of showing that solidarity, he said.
Warren M. Thompson, chairman of the board’s diversity committee, said it would be an impressive display if Cavalier fans wore the black ribbons during the Homecoming game against Duke on Sept. 24.
Thompson reminded attendees at the meeting inside and at the ceremony outside that his committee convened two-and-a-half years ago to evaluate and support efforts to promote diversity among students, faculty and administrators, as well as with the local community.
“What we’re experiencing is nothing new,” said Thompson, a 1983 Darden alumnus. Using his own experience as an example, he told about being in New York City on business a few weeks ago, when he hailed a cab only to be left standing there as the driver pulled away after realizing he was black.
“Our goal is to make this University the best in diversity and inclusiveness, and we’re not going to let up,” he said.
In the committee meeting, board members discussed how these efforts preceded the spate of bias incidents this semester and will continue in spite of them.
Board member Glynn D. Key said the incidents of bias might undercut the news about diversity efforts. For instance, it might look like the new vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity was hired because of the recent events, but that is not the case for a national search process that took almost a year.
Carol Wood, assistant vice president for University Relations, asked for the board’s input on what should be involved in a communications plan that highlights programs and people involved in diversity. She mentioned that since the “Envision Diversity” initiative began in fall 2002, more than 100 stories had been published in the news media and internal publications, most of them positive on U.Va.’s part.
Georgia M. Willis suggested communications should emphasize education and awareness. G. Slaughter Fitz-Hugh Jr. reminded the group that inclusiveness should be on everyone’s agenda at U.Va.
“We have to get out in front … and communicate what is expected to happen,” said Thompson, who would like “to show the world that inclusiveness is as much a part of the fabric of U.Va. as honor and ethics.”
He emphasized the need to keep making progress despite challenges, saying U.Va. must be a learning environment that will prepare students for the real world and dealing with these problems.
Casteen told the board committee that the evidence doesn’t reveal who is committing the abusive acts, but they are obviously intended to intimidate and isolate individuals, and take away their sense of security. In his travels visiting alumni, he said they tell him similar issues are preoccupying other campuses.
Board members in an earlier meeting of the Student Affairs and Athletics Committee had a chance to ask Student Council president Jequeatta Upton about students’ reactions to the racial incidents.
She said students are “scared” and want information promptly when an incident occurs. She thinks that students are more likely to report incidents now — “I think students are realizing that other students are reporting it more” — and that this is empowering. She said that there is “a general perception that the University does care,” but there is frustration with free-speech protection.
Upton said that students generally believe that the incidents result from deep-seated intolerance (she did not use the word “racism”), are not merely pranks and have not been provoked.
Fitz-Hugh urged Upton to keep the board informed, particularly if she sees any way that they can help.
Casteen mentioned one recommendation from the Commission on Diversity and Equity that should provide some assurance: an ongoing system for processing incidents of harassment or abuse is coming together.
The new policy states, “A staff implementation team, working under the general counsel’s guidance, will provide suitable protocols to [complete] assignments … drafting a lawful and clearly stated University definition of racial bias; establishing a streamlined central reporting system for tracking bias incidents; and, recommending persons to serve on a monitoring committee of students, faculty and staff.” In addition, an online training program to enable accurate and timely reporting is in the works for U.Va. staff who regularly counsel students.