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St. Paul’s Luncheon Speaker Series

Teresa A. Sullivan
Friday, February 15, 2013; Noon – 1:30
St. Paul’s Memorial Church

Reverend Richardson, thank you for the introduction, and thank you for inviting me to participate in the St. Paul’s luncheon speaker series. I know that many of you here today have some connection to UVa — either as faculty, staff, or students, or as neighbors in the surrounding area. A common bond we share is that all of us are members of a close-knit community.

I want to talk today about the importance of creating a caring community, both within the University and in the broader community. I’ll talk about what that means for each of us individually, and how we can work together to build the caring community that we all desire.

The call for a caring community has been a recurring them during my term as UVa’s president. I think this should be a priority for all of us, all of the time.  But it seems to be an especially appropriate topic for the season of Lent, when people of many faiths prepare ourselves for Easter through a period of self-examination, reflection, and prayer. This is a good time for each one of us to look inside ourselves, and ask ourselves what we can do to make this a truly caring community.

I want to begin by telling you a story about a Charlottesville house fire. It’s a story of personal courage and compassion, and it holds instructive lessons for our topic today.

At about 5:00 a.m., on the morning of January 21st, two gentlemen working on a trash truck for County Waste of Virginia pulled up in front of a house at 1256 Wertland Street, not far from here, and they noticed that the house was on fire. They could see flames leaping on the porch. One of the men got out of the truck and began throwing rocks at the windows and yelling to try to wake up the occupants. Meanwhile, the other man began blowing the truck’s horn to alert whoever might be sleeping inside the house. At the same time, he called  911 to report the fire.  

A University Police Officer named Benjamin Rexrode was the first to arrive in response to the 911 call. He saw heavy flames coming from the front of the house, so he went around back to look for another way to enter the building.

Meanwhile, inside the house, one student was awakened by the sound of the rocks hitting his window. Another student woke up, and together they realized the house was on fire. And instead of following the natural human impulse to run out of the house to save themselves, they began rushing from room to room to wake up their housemates.

By the time Officer Rexrode arrived at the back door, the students had begun fleeing the house through that doorway. A quick check of the group seemed to indicate that two students were unaccounted for, so Officer Rexrode, disregarding his own safety, ran into the burning house to search for them. He searched the lower floor, and finally, when he couldn’t find anyone, he rushed back outside. At that point, he was able to confirm that the two students who were originally thought to be missing had actually spent the night elsewhere.

Firefighters from the Charlottesville Fire Department showed up promptly, and they quickly got the fire under control, keeping it from spreading to other houses.

Because of these brave actions, 13 people, all UVa students, were able to escape the burning house completely uninjured.

But that’s not the end of the story, because those 13 students suddenly found themselves homeless and without any of their belongings, which had been damaged in the fire. UVa’s Associate Dean of Students, Marsh Pattie, who was dean-on-call on the night of the fire, met with the students that morning to begin making arrangements, and he continued to meet with students and their parents over the following days. Various offices within the University acted quickly to help the students. Our Athletics Department and our Bookstore contributed clothing and school supplies. Staff members in Student Council’s Student Legal Services began working with the students on their leasing options for new housing.

Several local organizations also took action. Representatives from CBS Rentals, the company that owns the Wertland Street  house, arranged to put the students up for a few nights at the Red Roof Inn, at the company’s expense. The managers of a 15th Street apartment building, the Grand Marc, later offered the students housing at reduced rates, and 9 of the 13 are now living there. The local Red Cross gave hygiene packs to the students, and Red Cross officials talked with some of them about financial support in the aftermath of the fire.

Meanwhile, expressions-of-concern and offers-of-help came in a constant flow from local citizens. Everyone in Charlottesville seemed to want to help out, and this points to one of the most remarkable parts of this story — it was a team effort. They say it takes a village to raise a child; now we know that it also takes a village to save a bunch of college students from a fire, and help them get on their feet again.  

Officers in the University and city and county police departments, and the brave men and women in our local fire departments, do heroic things every day; it comes with the territory of serving as a first-responder.

But the two men from County Waste, and the two students who helped their housemates get out of the burning house, were not expecting to do anything heroic before dawn on a cold Monday morning. Their response allowed all of the students to escape, and helped fire-fighters and police swing into action.

At UVa, when we talk about building a caring community,      we talk about being more than a bystander when we see someone who needs help. The events on the morning of January 21 are examples of action that saved lives. And later, in the aftermath of the fire, we saw local organizations and individual citizens reach out to build a safety net around these students who were suddenly in dire need of assistance.

The story of the Wertland Street fire gives us a good model for how we can take action, both as individuals and as a community, to respond to a sudden threat and its aftermath. As far as we know, the Wertland Street fire was an accident.  Sometimes, however, the threats to a community are not accidental at all. Sometimes the threats are quite deliberate and malicious.

Just this week, there was a case of intentional, deadly violence on another campus. Early Tuesday morning, three University of Maryland students who shared an off-campus house got into a confrontation. One of the students shot his two housemates, killing one of them and seriously injuring the other, and then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. According to news reports, the student used a handgun in the shootings, but he was also armed with a submachine gun, a machete, and a baseball bat — so it’s possible that he was intending to inflict far greater damage before he was confronted.

Our own University community has been touched by acts of violence and hate. Last November, there was a bias-motivated assault against a UVa student based on his perceived sexual orientation. This incident was reported to the University community in an email from UVa Police Chief Mike Gibson. It occurred near Brooks Hall, right across the street from this church, at about ten o’clock at night. The suspect, who was walking with a group of people, made derogatory comments to the victim regarding his sexual orientation, and then struck him in the face, before walking off.

Several people witnessed this incident, but nobody stepped forward to take action when it happened. We encourage our students and employees, if they encounter situations like this, to recognize that something is wrong and, within the limits of their own safety, to speak up or get help.

Gender violence is another serious issue. This is a problem at colleges and universities across the country — large and small, public and private, urban and rural, and UVa is no exception. Last week, I spoke at a University event focused on this issue and how we can work together to overcome it.

Gender violence exists at all levels of our society. Wealth, privilege, and social status are not insulators against this kind of abuse. While statistics tell us that most gender violence is inflicted by men on women, the reverse also occurs. Same-sex relationships are not immune, either.  Even the term, “gender violence,” is overly broad by definition.  Sexual assault, sexual misconduct, harassment, stalking, physical abuse, verbal and emotional abuse – all these actions constitute some form of gender violence.

Perhaps the most painful, profoundly damaging case of gender violence in our community was Yeardley Love’s death in May 2010. Her death was the most widely publicized incident in what was an unusually difficult year for this community. Seven UVa students died during that academic year, and Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington also died here.

Some of these deaths happened away from Grounds. Some were unforeseeable and perhaps unpreventable — one student died in an earthquake in Haiti, another died in a caving accident in Utah. In some situations, though, people in this community were left to wonder whether we might have done something differently to change what happened. Particularly in situations that involve violence, we wonder if we might have done something — or said something, or somehow intervened — to alter the circumstances and outcomes. These questions led us, in the fall of 2010, to explore the connected issues of personal responsibility and community accountability. 

At the beginning of the fall semester following Yeardley Love’s death, we held a community-wide Day of Dialogue to think and talk about how to build a more caring community. In the weeks leading up to the event, many people got in touch with me to express their opinions about the day we were planning. Some, including some parents of students, expressed the opinion that we should not talk about such issues – that these issues are depressing, or upsetting, and young people should not have to consider things that are depressing or upsetting. 

Others contacted me to say that the Day of Dialogue was a bad idea because “talk” was not what we needed.  We needed action, they said, and some of them suggested what that action should be. One person suggested, for example, that we should allow all students to carry guns on Grounds. Others suggested laws that should be passed, or administrative rules that should be adopted, or other changes that should be enacted by UVa leaders, without involving so many people in the discussion. I believed, however, that dialogue is essential to the healing and learning process, and I still believe that. And I’m particularly pleased that our students have taken the lead in keeping the dialogue going.

Following Yeardley Love’s death, student leaders created  “Let’s Get Grounded.” This program focuses on “bystander behavior,” encouraging students to take action when their classmates need help and raising awareness of how we can build a safe, caring community. The University’s second- and third-year class councils are reviving Let’s Get Grounded this spring semester. Just last week, about 30 students participated in a train-the-trainer event to begin delivering the program. 

Along with programs like Let’s Get Grounded, we need to focus on prevention and education – to stop violence before it occurs; to say something if we witness it; and to encourage UVa students and others in our community to intervene to help a friend when they see a friend in trouble.

Another program, “Dialogue Across UVa,” is an outgrowth of the Day of Dialogue, and it’s also helping us build a more caring community. It began in 2010 when a group of students, faculty, and staff saw the need to continue the conversations that started during the Day of Dialogue.

The Dialogue groups are organized with about 12 participants in each group, and they meet with a trained facilitator for five, 90-minute sessions that are focused on a particular topic. Past topics have addressed issued related to violence, race, town-gown relations in Charlottesville, power and privilege on Grounds, and faith at the University. Over 350 faculty, staff, and students have participated in the Dialogue sessions thus far, and the student-leaders involved in this project hope to continue expanding its scale and scope. 

The Dialogue sessions for the spring semester are about to get under way. Topics will include race and gender, tradition and progress, and being an American in a global society. UVa faculty, staff, and students can sign up online by this Monday, Feb. 18, to join the dialogue sessions that will begin next week. Just search the term “Dialogue Across UVa” on the University’s website, and you’ll find the registration page. Or you can send an email to

If we want to have a caring community, we need to treat each other with kindness, dignity, and respect, regardless of each person’s position, social standing, or status in the community. This extends to the workplace, which serves as the central community, for many of us, for at least eight hours a day.

At UVa, we want all of our employees to embrace the values and principles of a respectful workplace. I’m aware that not everyone in this audience works at UVa. But through a commitment to these values, you can help build a respectful workplace anywhere, regardless of where you work.

Shortly after the Day of Dialogue in 2010, I asked faculty and staff volunteers from across the University to serve on a Respectful Workplace Task Force. Susan Carkeek, our Vice President for Human Resources, chaired the group of 26 faculty and staff members. The task force looked at the policies, structures, and resources that we would need to support a culture of civility and respectful behavior at UVa.

Based on this work, a year ago we announced UVa’s Commitment to a Caring Community of Dignity and Respect.  This included the launch of the Respect@UVa website, which has respectful-workplace guidelines, resources to help teach and reinforce respectful behaviors, and an incident-reporting system that employees can use to report violations. We offer training programs on respectful behavior that are available either through an online training module or through on-site, instructor-led courses. These programs have touched over 400 people in our schools and units, and trainers have led 16 large-scale sessions with groups like the Faculty Senate, Medical Center managers, and the Employee Communications Council.

A recent staff survey showed that, for most of us, the University provides a supportive and respectful environment. But we have received about 40 complaints through the Respect@UVa incident-reporting system. We do have occasional problems in our workplace, but the fact that we know about them means that the system is working to address them when they arise. Our Human Resources staff is preparing to survey employees who have gone through the training program or used the reporting system to determine the effectiveness of these programs, and to learn how we can improve our outreach and responsiveness.

As we continue these efforts, we want to celebrate our UVa employees who personify the best qualities of a respectful workplace. Employees who are selected are being featured as “Respectful Workplace Champions” on the HR website. If you’re a UVa employee, I encourage you to nominate colleagues who are deserving of this recognition. You can submit nominations by sending an email to

While working to develop the respectful-workplace programs, the task force developed a motto that goes like this: “A Caring Community Starts with Me.” There’s a lot of truth in that statement, and that’s  probably a good way for me to end these remarks.

A community is a collection of individuals, and the will of the community is only as strong as the will of each person in it. If we want to live in a community characterized by caring, respect, and civility toward our colleagues and our fellow human beings, then each one of us must make the choice to live by those qualities.  I’m committed to doing that, and I hope you’ll join me in the effort.

Thank you, and I believe we might have time for a few questions.