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Alumni News

Summer 2003

In my spring travel to visit alumni clubs, I have heard a good bit of advice about issues here in Charlottesville, including the report of racial intimidation in connection with the spring elections for student council offices. Alumni News is covering these events in a separate article in this issue. Other information appears at http://www.virginia.edu/uvadiversity/.

The advice fell into these broad categories: concern about violence and intimidation on the Grounds, especially in connection with a student election; bafflement that in 2003 the race of a candidate for student council president is an issue for anyone; determination that we can do better, not least because to fail to use these issues to provoke serious teaching and learning about personal security and respect among the races now is to surrender the moral high ground on which student self-governance rests; and concern that a small number of haters can do such damage to a cause—equity within the University—that virtually all see as essential.

The concern about personal security on the Grounds seems very basic to me. A community dedicated to truth and freedom cannot tolerate intimidation or violence among students engaged in competition for positions of student leadership. Alumni at these meetings told me that their fondest memories include the sense of security with which they rambled through the Grounds, including the Central Grounds, their alleys and gardens, and even Observatory Hill at night. Many dislike the bright lighting installed in recent years, but they said also that the lights are a fair trade for the freedom to move about at will.

We began adding the lights when women reported feeling insecure on Grounds. Indeed, experience has taught us that dark areas are hazardous. We add bright lights each year as new areas of concern present themselves. We teach students to be security-conscious, to think before putting themselves at risk, even when risk is slight. Yet all students, male, female, black, white, sooner or later do take certain risks. They ramble about at night, just as we did. Virtually all escape harm. Not many assaults occur here. Most that do occur involve intoxication. Others, however, involve dark places and the wee hours of the morning, and a few involve both intoxication and darkness.

The racial element of this spring's reported assault adds another dimension. On the Sunday following spring break, about 40 persons, most of them parents of African-American students, gathered at Carr's Hill to express concerns to me. The single most common concern is this: When one or more nuts or racists move beyond their internal hatreds to acts of intimidation and then violence, the threat to African-American students is especially severe, because they are so visible within a largely white community. A black student never has anonymity as a cover. They have sought and gained student offices. They have sought and won all of the prizes we or the larger world offers to persons of their ages. These students have been achievers and champions of cherished institutions. The victim in this reported assault did what she should have—when the threats began coming, she called the police, she met with them, she began carrying a special cell phone to use when she felt threatened. She even moved out of her regular dorm room to make herself more difficult to find. Yet the report is that someone went to the trouble of finding her in the dark, lurking while she was indoors, and striking when she came out, ironically to find a misplaced cell phone. And, as the parents have said, she was easy to spot because of the color of her skin.

We are working to educate this generation of students about the painful process by which desegregation and diversity came to the Grounds because of complaints from black students about what they see as an increasingly hostile climate—not generally, but in specific pockets within the larger University community. Generally speaking, today's students have little knowledge of the litigation by which the University was desegregated and coeducated. Massive resistance means little to them. Yet they want to understand their own community in the context of its history.

Alumni this spring have wanted to know that the University Police and the FBI are aggressive in this investigation. (They are, and at least as of this date they expect to resolve the case.) And they want assurance that we are teaching what students need to know—that this place is a better place for its inclusiveness; that they and we honor and admire student accomplishments, and in special ways the accomplishments of those who came in the early days of desegregation and took on the hard life of the pioneer; that we do not tolerate intimidation and violence as means to win student elections; that the University stands now as it has in appropriate ways from its beginning for freedom of the mind.

These are basic lessons, but they seem now to need teaching once more.